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May 19, 2019

Wembley: A national gem gets a polish


To most people Wembley will always be the arena of so many glorious moments in English and even world sporting history – the site of the first post-war Olympics in 1948, that unforgettable 1966 England World Cup victory, numerous football Cup Finals – as well as rocking the world in 1985 with that remarkable ground-breaking Live Aid concert. It’s one of these unique places which both elicits a special affection in us for and we also hold in high esteem. The iconic (now long-gone) white-stone Twin Towers have witnessed so much emotion, so many highs and lows, hopes and dreams have been fulfilled and dashed and not just for participants in the arena, but for fans from all over the world.

I went on a recent tour of Wembley and I certainly took that trip down nostalgia lane, recalling my first visit to that ‘hallowed’ ground – an equally enlightening and inspiring event, back in 1986. I was invited to the Rugby League Final and experienced the invasion of what seemed to be most of the North of England! My other recollection of Wembley Park in the mid-80s was that it was just the national stadium and the vast indoor Wembley Arena in the midst of a rundown, neglected north-west London suburb.

The centrepiece stadium had a much-publicised major overhaul which was completed in 2007 and remains the headquarters of English football. The 134-metre-high Wembley Arch now dominates the landscape from far and wide, making it a veritable London landmark. It seemed apposite that the 85 acres of land surrounding this great, modern home to English football needed refurbishment too. From a purely physical perspective the redevelopment work done in the area, over the last 17 years by developer Quintain has seen the creation of a new vibrancy in this once very run-of-the-mill suburb.

Wembley Park, London. Photo credit : Chris Winter / Wembley Park

Quintain’s ambition is impressive: they purchased the surrounding land known as Wembley Park in 2002 with outline planning consent for 8.8 million sq ft of mixed-use development and have committed to invest over £3 billion into its transformation. With 3,100 homes under construction, having already delivered 1,750 and refurbished Wembley Arena to the tune of £35 million. There is 1,000,000 sq ft of office space and a further 500,000 sq ft of retail and leisure space to add to the existing multitude of shops, restaurants/ coffee places, including London Designer Outlet – London’s leading fashion and lifestyle outlet shopping centre. The new ‘Masterplan for Wembley Park’ has been hailed as “one of Europe’s leading and most exciting development projects”.

Since my first visit to Wembley my association with the area has not just been confined to cheering sporting events. I retained a passing interest in recent years, as a consequence of my involvement with the board of housing association Network Homes, who are currently in the process of moving headquarters from Olympic Way into the new buildings. This allowed me to see first-hand how Quintain approached the development process. Indeed it was interesting to note, on my recent tour, how the social and affordable element of the project is seamlessly integrated – one cannot differentiate externally.

However physical aspects apart, it is their approach to how the new neighbourhoods are operated and curated that is really noteworthy. Compared to the traditional approach they control the letting of units via their Tipi residential leasing operation and walking around Wembley Park it’s impossible to avoid their marketing tagline – Rental Rebellion. Quintain both own and manage the apartments through their own on-site Tipi team, they don’t need or rely on agents, nor do their residents. Since Wembley Park is set to become the largest build-to-rent development in the UK, with 5,000 homes being delivered by 2024, all of them will be under Tipi’s single management, with Quintain also controlling the site management of the 85-acre estate.

Social Media Wembley Park, London. Photo credit : Chris Winter / Wembley Park

Talking with the Quintain team they recognise that the challenge they face is to get Wembley Park recognised as a “go to” destination, beyond sports at Wembley Stadium and concerts/events at the Arena. This certainly resonated with me, reminding me how White City struggled in this respect as well. Admittedly, London Designer Outlet is certainly another big additional draw. However, the placemaking strategy for the area is beginning to come together, to create the vibe of a community, who isn’t just there to play, but to work and live there too.

Brent Council located their award-winning Civic Centre in Wembley Park – designed to be the greenest public building in the UK. In addition to The Yellow, a community centre, which provides a variety of classes and teaching skills, the aim being to bring together the existing community, along with new residents, workers and students. Wembley Park has a thriving student population, who live in self-contained accommodation and cluster flats, operated in partnership with the Wellcome Trust.

The timing of my tour coincided with Building Magazine publishing a critique of the project. It was interesting to note their views. One of their reviewers felt “a lack of things around reinforces the feeling of a campus removed from the real world”. Whereas an existing resident said, “I love it. I was particularly keen to be part of this burgeoning community of like-minded people in a great part of north-west London…… within the development there is a calmness, a serenity that makes coming back from a long day at work in the City feel relaxing.” In my mind that is a positive indication of what good placemaking should achieve – a happy client. As in most things in life, it’s very much a case of ‘horses for courses’; what suits one person, their needs and their lifestyle, doesn’t particularly suit another.

In short, I came away from the Wembley Park development impressed by the quality of the residential offer and the vibrancy of the place, as well as the successful juxtaposition of design and operational aspects.

Over the last 17 years Wembley has experienced some remarkable regeneration, beyond the iconic national Stadium and undoubtedly quality will win out in the end and I have a feeling that this placemaking project will be regarded right up there as an example of one of the best.

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