Greenwich Society Millennium Expo Meeting, 14/11/96

Members of the Westcombe Society Committee and the Environmental Sub-Committee and the Blackheath Society were invited to attend a meeting organised by the Greenwich Society at the Borough Hall, Greenwich on November 14th 1996.

This was no ordinary meeting in the annals of that Society. Ursula Bowyer, the Chair of the Greenwich Society stood before an audience of over 150 and introduced the panel of speakers representing Millennium Central – the Operator, the Richard Rodgers Partnership – architects, Greenwich Council , the Millennium Trust and the National Maritime Museum . Behind her were full stage height dark blue theatrical ‘flats’ surrounding two large video screens which were used to present the slides and a publicity video and in front a fully microphoned matching ‘desk’ thirty feet in length.

Barry Hartop , Chief Executive of Millennium Central, the operating company, introduced the session and spoke generally about plans for the Exhibition.

He was followed by Mike Davies of the Richard Rodgers Partnership who have designed the huge Millennium Dome and the layout of the rest of the 300 acre Exhibition site. Much has already been written and pictured in both the national and local press of the huge dome supported by massive steel masts which poke through the fabric canopy at an angle making it look like a huge white sea urchin (at least that’s a different analogy from any your reporter has yet read!). Although it may not look that special externally, the way it is being designed to mould in to the surrounding area in order to conceal the service provision facilities that will be needed for such a huge complex is spectacular. Internally there are 12 spiral ramps that will provide full disabled access to the main exhibition floor from a wide boardwalk that circumnavigates the Dome, with spectacular views externally in all directions, three of which are over the River Thames. The Dome’s true dimensions are pretty hard to imagine (sic) since the knowledge that most local people have of the true size of the Exhibition site is minimal. To put it into a more familiar context, the height of the Dome will take Nelson’s Column easily and its diameter is the equivalent of the distance from the Queens House in Greenwich to the River Steps of the Royal Naval College. The entire Peninsula site owned by British Gas, of which the Exhibition area is only part, if measured lengthways would need the distance between the Thames at Charing Cross and the Euston Road to fit. Outside the Dome, to the south, an enormous open air Plaza and concert ‘bowl’ will stretch from the new North Greenwich underground station entrance right across to a new river pier on the east side of the Peninsula. To the North, alongside the river, gardens and a landscaped area lead to an improved existing river pier, though one corner of which the Meridian line actually passes. To the South of the Plaza are the car and coach park, separated from one another by a large area of public open space and water gardens (one of the few definitive ‘legacy’ components of the design), and to the South of the station complex is a large service distribution area for the Exhibition site.

Howard Potter of W.S. Atkins then spoke about plans for access to the Exhibition. As far as the majority of people in the area are concerned this is clearly one of the major areas of concern about the entire development. In theory, at least, the plans aim to see no more than 2% of visitors arrive by car… a much lower figure than anything attempted at any comparable Exhibition. So, how is this to be achieved? Estimates of the split are as follows;

The new North Greenwich Jubilee Line station has the capacity, with its three platforms, to handle nearly 50% of the expected visitors. This would be by a combination of direct travel (37%) from a variety of points, or from prescribed park-and-ride facilities (27%) some of which would be located to allow the final stage of the journey to be made by boat or by bus. Underground passengers would feed into the system from both ends of the line via large car parks planned for Stratford in the east and other locations out to the west of London.

12% are expected to arrive by coach. There will a large coach parking area to the east of the Peninsula – one of the least attractive aspects of the scheme.

7% are expected to arrive via a brand new fleet of Thames passenger-carrying craft, some with a capacity of 400-500 people. One of the planned craft is already on the river and planned to go into full operational service in early 1997. It is red in colour, so should be fairly distinctive. These craft will carry visitors from Central London and from the downstream car parks. They will also act as shuttle ferries to additional car parks on the north bank of the river as well as carrying those visitors who arrive in Greenwich itself, or who wish to experience historical Greenwich and the town centre having arrived first at the Expo site.

5% would arrive by vastly improved local bus services at the North Greenwich Station complex.

4% would arrive via the North Kent Line and another 4% by taxi. 2% of visitors will be catered for by car parking. This will be almost exclusively for ‘orange’ badge holders, i.e. the disabled, and for those needing to carry essential equipment to the site on a daily or occasional basis. Those wishing to travel most of the way by car would be directed to car parks elsewhere in the Borough of Greenwich (sites at Falconwood, Eltham, Woolwich and Thamesmead are under review), Dartford, Beckton and Stratford as well as out to the west.

Around another 2% of visitors are currently estimated want to reach the Exhibition site either on foot or by cycle, although there will be secure provision for cycles on the site. More may well be done in this area if a number of those present have anything to do with it. The existing, nearly two mile long, river walk, which has recently become part of the Thames Path is sorely inadequate to cater for a significant increase in cycle and pedestrian traffic. Improvement would be very difficult and costly bearing in mind the complex ownership of the riverfront, it’s tortuous course as well as the space available to achieve it.

New ‘green’ transport ideas include a rubber-tyred rapid transit link to either Westcombe Park or Charlton North Kent Line stations. Apparently Charlton is currently favourite for this, probably because it would much easier to build some kind of priority route for such a road-based transit system similar to that shown on earlier British Gas proposals for the rest of the Peninsula site. This would presumably run from Charlton Station into Bugsbys Way and onward to the Exhibition site. The crossing of Woolwich Road and terminus facilities at Westcombe Park would be much more difficult to implement. Councillor Bob Harris from Greenwich Council in answer to later questions indicated that the earlier idea of establishing a ‘light-rail’ link along the existing Angerstein Line to Westcombe Park or Charlton is now unlikely owing to difficulties integrating passenger-carrying services with the existing operational freight link to the sand and gravel works at the southern end of the Peninsula site.

The most outlandish and, as would currently appear, unattractive proposal in design terms is to provide a multi-car cable ‘railway’ link across the Thames direct to the north bank car parks. Much was made of the site and its uninterrupted three river faces. To the reporters mind, this plan would ruin much of that, but it might just have been that a poor simulated image did the scheme no favours. An experience it might be… an eye pleaser it is not.

However people choose to travel, the operators plan to integrate travel and entrance tickets in such a way as to make arrival and departure options as flexible as possible. They also aim to begin the ‘Millennium Experience’ with the last phase of the visitors mode of travel, carrying it through to their arrival at the Exhibition site itself.

Sir Bob Scott of the Greenwich Millennium Trust spoke very briefly applauding what had already been achieved in the short space of time since the final go-ahead for Greenwich’s plans for the Exhibition which he had successfully spear-headed. He was followed by Kristen Lippincott of the National Maritime Museum who spoke exceptionally well about the Museum’s plans for some West Greenwich celebration of the Millennium; a major exhibition of internationally renowned artefacts with the overall theme of Time as well as events on the Millennium Eve itself, largely centred around the Old Royal Observatory and the Meridian Line and a spectacular outdoor concert. These events are apparently being designed to be largely a tele-visual experience rather than something that one simply has to brave the cold and wet for.. even if one lives locally.

Following the presentations and a slightly over-the-top promotional video, more than three quarters of an hour was allowed for questions from the floor. As indicated earlier, the majority of these related to visitor access. There were also enquiries regarding the ‘legacy’ aspect of the Dome itself and how the Millennium site would relate to developments at the southern part of the whole Peninsula site that was not part of the Exhibition itself. There was also some discussion about hotel, bed-and-breakfast and possible ‘budget’ accommodation provision for students and others on low incomes. In relation to the luxury end, aimed primarily at overseas visitors, Barry Hartop described one proposal that has found considerable favour with Greenwich Council and that was to look at an idea implemented at the Barcelona Olympics, where a number of cruise liners were brought in as floating accommodation for the duration of the event. This idea is now under serious study and would integrate well with the serious lack of hotel accommodation in the immediate area and the existing plan for a Cruise Liner terminal in the heart of Greenwich.

Your reporter spent an additional enjoyable half and hour prior to the meeting looking at the plans and models that comprised an impressive exhibition on the ground floor of the Borough Hall.

Copyright: David Riddle (Westcombe Society Environmental Sub-Committee member at this date)