When people bang on about “Olympic legacy”, most sane observers’ eyes glaze over. But, ahead of the hassles of 2012, here’s a glimpse of what this area is expected to get in return…
While hundreds were turned away from a Trafalgar Square screening, about 100 people settled down in General Gordon Square, Woolwich, for a screening of the Royal Opera House’s Madam Butterfly on Monday night. More significantly, it marks the partial-reopening of the square after a renovation scheme.
Until it was shut last year, the square was a wino-attracting mess, with council staff having to lay down rat poison and scoop out turds from the fountain each morning. Now that’s all gone, and a new-look square has taken its place, although proper lighting has yet to be installed and the turf is yet to bed in.
It all seemed very pleasant and serene when I passed through. Greenwich Council wants to hold more events in the square, and next weekend BBC London radio will be hosting shows from there. They’ll include one from indie champion Gary Crowley, poignantly being held just a hundred metres away from Woolwich’s long-lost gig venue the Tramshed. From the look of Monday night, they could well be on to a winner. Bearing in mind the list of failed schemes to improve Woolwich, that could be some achievement.
Rebuilding the square makes the screen (“attention drones!“) look less of a desperate attempt to distract people from the state of Woolwich, even if Greenwich Council still insists it is a “focal point for the borough”. The point is, really, to stop much of the borough turning its back on Woolwich, and give people reasons to go there again, instead of heading to retail parks or out-of-town centres.
Part of the scheme’s aim is to make Woolwich look good as the Olympic shooting events approach, although you don’t have to look far for evidence to the contrary. Just around the corner lies the crumbling Connaught Estate, possibly south London’s worst housing project and a place where many council staff refuse to work alone. Only now are moves beginning to rebuild the estate – its neglect a hidden scandal in a town that’s usually brushed under the carpet anyway.
Most of the recent regeneration efforts have been hidden behind the walls of the Arsenal – another challenge will be breaking down the mental barrier between the swish apartments within and the rest of Woolwich, even if the physical barrier is, in fact, listed.
The biggest is yet to come – council staff are packing up and moving into their new Woolwich Centre on Wellington Street, a prelude to the huge new Tesco development due for Woolwich New Road. Redevelopment is also coming to the old Royal Arsenal Co-Operative Society buildings at the other end of the town centre while another hotel is planned to go above the DLR station.
And don’t forget Crossrail, if funding can be secured.
So, by the end of the decade, will we see Woolwich as a thriving shopping hub, hosting cultural events and providing tourists with a place to stay the night? Maybe, but the area’s current landowners don’t seem to be playing their part in regeneration. Whatever you think of the council’s overall vision for Woolwich, sticking a branch of Paddy Power inside the old Woolwich Equitable House doesn’t really indicate a town on the up. Better days are yet to come for Woolwich, hopefully.