Review: District regeneration

Opinion piece
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The Alto Apartments scheme in London’s Wembley Park is centred around attractive, generous public space, but its blocks have a sober feel, find Amanda Chan and Cezar Petcu.

Wembley Park’s vibrancy has been experienced by sports fans and concertgoers to its world famous stadium since 1923 – but events happen only on 40 days a year. Despite its high profile, international renown, this district in north west London is otherwise characterised by a struggling high street, vacant land and dilapidated industrial buildings. The Alto Apartments development, which was completed last year, is part of the regeneration of the area. It involves a significant amount of residential development and a range of leisure, business and community uses, alongside the new stadium and refurbished arena.

The developer Quintain bought around 34 hectares of car parks, warehouses and derelict plots around the stadium in 2002 and 2003. A masterplan by architect Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners identified the potential for 200,000 square metres of mixed use on 18 hectares of it. Development was to be led by the creation of a major public route from Wembley Central station to the stadium, and then beyond to Wembley Park station.

The Alto Apartments development was designed by architect Flanagan Lawrence and is 500 metres from Wembley Park station. It comprises 360 flats in four blocks, which range from nine to 19 storeys, that sit around Elvin Square Gardens, a generous public space. It includes a mix of market and affordable rented and for sale homes, private amenities and a community hub.

Public space offers a great community facility, but apartment blocks lack distinctive features
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Blank canvas

Alto’s exterior comprises an intentionally limited palette of materials and strong vertical elements. This contrasts with the more colourful adjacent Grand Felda block of student apartments and other neighbouring buildings. Pathways through Elvin Square Gardens lead to the apartment entrances, increasing the sense of grandeur to the front of the development.

There is little ground floor activity at the moment, a lack of distinction between separate blocks and a limited relationship with the public realm. The overall form, absence of architectural detailing and prominent linear rhythms give a clinical and sober feel. In time, increased occupation, greater activity at ground level and personalisation within balconies will hopefully transform this blank canvas into a lively part of Wembley Park.

Elvin Square Gardens offers a high quality public area with a variety of landscaping and seating framed by Alto, Brent Civic Centre and the forthcoming Wembley Theatre. It is a pleasant, vehicle-free space, nurturing opportunities for social activity and play, with the potential to feel enclosed and overlooked. Integrated into a network of local pocket parks, the square is a key asset and is set back from the main route between the station and the stadium, so it is not adversely affected by the crowds of people attending major events.

Water features and sensory gardens are marketed features of Alto, but are disappointingly exclusive to residents, in a private podium. However, glazed fencing and landscaped steps down from this area to the adjacent street provide visible connection and natural surveillance to the public realm, while distinguishing public and private space.

Alto’s prominence is achieved through its striking architecture. The strength of its public landscaped areas shows promise for its integration into the wider community spaces. Once further phases of the masterplan emerge and the community hub opens at ground floor, Alto’s homes and public spaces could play an important role in the transformation of Wembley from a temporary events quarter to thriving community.

Amanda Chan and Cezar Petcu are urban designers at planning and design consultancy Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design. Original article can be found on Placemaking Resource.