London's historic Smithfield Western buildings are in danger of

Exterior corner of the Smithfield General Market, one of a series of market buildings threatened with a facedectomy. / Photo: flierfy via Flickr

One of the most persistent plights of public markets is when surrounding real estate values go up to such an extent that a market can no longer afford to compete against interests with more economic heft. Street trolleys, automobiles, big developers, high rises, shopping centers, and corruption have all been part of the bigger-is-better movement that  have replaced the participatory, visceral market experience as the totems of commerce and economic growth.

The irony is that local public markets are what underlie, what grew, and what nurtured the larger global economy. It is a tragedy when that larger economy quashes the local, making it much more difficult for people to find their footing on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and become self-sufficient. This is precisely one of the reasons for having a government: so that business interests alone are not in control of the fate of places, the look of communities, and the life of accessible small scale economies.

The economics of a market are not its true measure, anyway. How do you put a price on community, sense of place, or the benefits of local food systems? Thankfully the public loves markets, and their collective, organized sentiment can create a base of political support in order to save a market that functions as a great public space and small scale economic anchor, even if it is not the “highest and best use” on a given piece of desirable land.

The Smithfield Western buildings' soaring interior would be destroyed for office blocks in a new plan / Photo: David K. O'Neil

Interior of the Smithfield General Market in London, which many are trying to save from demolition (Click for full-size) / Photo: David K. O’Neil

A high stakes scenario of this sort is playing out in London’s Smithfield Market District, where a series of unused but splendid Victorian market buildings designed by Horace Jones (the architect of iconic places like Tower Bridge, Billingsgate Market, and Spitalfields Market, among others) are caught in a tug of war between those who would like to see the buildings revived for their original use as part of a larger market, and those who would perform a facadectomy on the old market buildings and erect a mixed use office block behind them.  The City Corporation of London, owner of the Smithfield Western Market Buildings, wound up with some egg on its face after approving the facadectomy application, which was then unceremoniously ‘called in’ by the UK Secretary of State for Community and Local Government. The Secretary has the right to intercede if an application conflicts with national policy.

Just for clarification, the Smithfield Market itself is not under threat, and continues to operate as the largest meat wholesaler in Europe. The threatened Smithfield Western Market Buildings are nearby, and within what is known as the Smithfield Conservation Area.

proposal

Henderson and TIAA CREF have proposed several six-story office blocks for the site / Photo: freeofficefinder.com

The application to do away with Smithfield’s Western Market Buildings and only save some of the facades came from Henderson Global Investors, Ltd.  Ironically, their new real estate development partner is none other than TIAA CREF, a “leading provider of retirement services in the academic, research, medical, cultural and government fields,” whose contributors and pensioners are typical of the very types of people who have been supporting the revival and development of local markets in the United States (after decades of decline, of course).  This team is proposing several six-story office blocks for the site.

Another private sector proposal to renovate and reopen the markets was submitted by Eric Reynolds’ company Urban Space Management, the brains behind some very successful market projects in London (Camden Lock, Greenwich, Spitalfields) and New York (Union Square Holiday Market).  USM is proposing a 90-year lease deal with the City Corporation to make a go at saving not only the physical Smithfield Western Market Buildings, but restoring the uses of a market as well. These guys have a great track record with markets, and their proposal should be given very serious consideration as it shows how to do what many said can’t be done.

Thankfully, supporters of the Smithfield Western Market Buildings had enough time and moxie to mobilize alongside SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which organized a political campaign and petition drive to put the application on hold. Jolly good!

London has been quite good at preserving its market culture, deliberately keeping many of its traditional markets in the city as a fundamental way to preserve character and prevent London from becoming a domain for only the well-coiffed and well-heeled. Borough Market, Spitalfields, and the meat wholesale market at Smithfield are all great successes that, in concert with a remarkable network of others across the British capital, attest to the value of markets as a civic asset beyond measure.

The good news at the Smithfield site is that the City owns the market buildings in question. It seems that public ownership with protective use guidelines is essential to preserving the traditional role of the market and not selling out to the highest bidder. But in the future, markets will be increasingly threatened if left to fight a purely economic fight. We need more enlightened thinking to preserve these very special, multi-functional places and the role that they play in the long-term health of local economies. Any community with an eye toward becoming a market district would do well to keep an eye on what happens at this historic site in the coming months.