Island Site: Plans to redevelop Woolwich’s old polytechnic buildings return

2-4 Wellington Street looking derelict
This crumbling block on Wellington Street could be finally be given a new lease of life after sitting derelict for more than 20 years

Plans to redevelop disused university buildings in the centre of Woolwich have come back into the spotlight – with another row likely to break out over the lack of “affordable” housing.

Much of the University of Greenwich’s old Island site, between Calderwood Street and Wellington Street and opposite the council’s Woolwich Centre HQ, has sat disused for more than 20 years after the institution moved to the Old Royal Naval College.

Many of the buildings date back to the original 19th-century Woolwich Polytechnic, the university’s predecessor, and one – a gymnasium hidden away at the centre of site – is Grade II listed.

Now 494 co-living units could be built there along with shops and offices, with many of the original buildings being retained and extended. The scheme will also include 20 flats for London Affordable Rent – about half market rents – falling far short of Greenwich’s housing policies.

It would also open up some of the site to the public with the demolition of the 1960s buildings on Wellington Street to form an entrance to a courtyard. Greenwich Council has now begun consulting residents on the proposals.

Former Thames Polytechnic buildings in Woolwich
Many of the 1960s additions to the site would be demolished

Co-living developments provide small ensuite rooms with shared facilities and are aimed at young professionals. While each rented room would have basic cooking facilities, they would have shared kitchens and dining areas as well as a laundry, shared workspace, a gym and cinema.

London’s best-known shared living provider, The Collective, collapsed in 2021 and the sector has come in for criticism over allegations of poor management.

But as young people are priced out of standard housing, investors are keen on offering them a cheaper alternative – a 46-storey block with 795 units was approved for the Isle of Dogs last week.

Greenwich’s Labour councillors are now likely to face the quandary of whether they should approve a scheme which does not follow their policies – but could revive a site that has sat crumbling for decades.

New Woolwich Island site render
A new courtyard would be accessible from Wellington Street

Plans for 300 flats on the University of Greenwich’s old Island Site were first approved in 2017, but quickly ran into criticism because just 40 would be “affordable”. While the scheme was later amended to provide more cheaper homes – after the offer of a grant from City Hall – the plans ultimately went nowhere.

Two years ago, proposals to replace the flats with 660 co-living spaces first emerged – which would have made the scheme one of the biggest such developments in the world.

But now the numbers have come down to make the development less bulky and to cut down its height from ten to six storeys, the trade-off is fewer homes for those on the housing waiting list, and nothing for anyone looking for any other form of “affordable” housing.

In Greenwich, 24.5 per cent of homes in large developments are meant to be for people on housing waiting lists – usually at London Affordable Rent, about half market rents. Another 10.5 per cent can be shared ownership, or private rents at a discount, making a target of 35 per cent “affordable” housing.

With the 494 co-living spaces being treated as the equivalent of 275 standard homes, the new Woolwich Island scheme comes out at just 6.8 per cent. A viability assessment included with the application says that the developer cannot afford to include any more.

Woolwich Island developers' render
The Grade II-listed Gymnasium is off limits to the public at present, but would be opened up under the developers’ plans

The cost of new housing in Woolwich town centre is already a sore point. Last September plans to complete the development around the Tesco store – including a 15-storey tower – were approved despite it only having 23 per cent “affordable” housing. The same month councillors were unhappy about the new blocks being built to fund the Woolwich leisure centre development because of the small number of council homes.

And the council-backed Woolwich Exchange – which includes plans for a cinema in the old covered market – also came in for criticism because it will have just 19.5 per cent “affordable” housing. Public hearings to compulsorily purchase the land for that scheme have recently taken place.

The Woolwich Island application includes an implicit warning to councillors that rejecting the scheme because of the lack of “affordable” housing may fail. A similar co-living scheme in Hounslow town centre – also opposite the council HQ – was rejected by councillors but approved on appeal to a planning inspector in 2021, and a copy of the ruling is included with the documents.

Woolwich Polytechnic sign on old building
The original Woolwich Polytechnic buildings date back to the 19th century

The company behind the original plan was Powis Street Estates, an investment company which has had interests in Woolwich for many years.

But in October 2021 Powis Street Estates sold the land to Woolwich Island Ltd for £32.5 million. The company’s sole director is Guy Ziser, a 35-year-old developer from Hampstead.

The Ziser family business says on its website that it is planning to convert the last remaining sailmaker’s yard in London – on the Commercial Road in Limehouse – into offices and homes.

Its other projects include converting a drab office block in Spitalfields into the Second Home shared workspace, together with flats, and other conversions of older industrial buildings into offices and studios in Dalston and Holloway.

Full details of the Woolwich Island project can be seen on the Greenwich council planning website.

Help 853 continue reporting on public interest issues in Greenwich and southeast London – we are the only outlet regularly producing original journalism in the borough, and we can only do it with your funding.

Please join over 100 donors who use Steady, PressPatron or Patreon to give a little towards our costs every month. The money pays the bills, a wage for the editor and pays others to write for the site.

You can also buy the editor a coffee at Thank you.