Standing on the tenth floor of TfL's soon-to-be offices in the heart of the Olympic Park, there's a panoramic view of Stratford and the rest of London beyond. The landscape is littered with cranes and unfinished tower blocks like the one we're standing in. Among them there's a sprinkling of former Olympic venues that provided the catalyst for this re-imagined Stratford to occur. Or did they?
A huge slice of the changes in the Olympic Park comes from International Quarter London. IQL is run by property development company Lendlease, and totals up to 4 million sq ft of offices. Lendlease also built the luxury apartment complex Glasshouse Gardens in the Olympic Park and, originally built the Athletes' Village for the games. The team here knows intimately the rapid changes the area has undergone.
Kevin Chapman, head of offices at IQL, tells us, "what we've had to do is bring the commercial office element into the Olympic Park as part of the legacy." Commercial premises were always a necessary asset in making the Olympic Park profitable and IQL are delivering big name tenants. The Financial Conduct Authority is taking one building, TfL a slightly smaller one and the British Council and Cancer Research are set to share another.
Chapman puts a lot of emphasis on all these tenants and luring them away from their former London bases; traditional office areas such as Canary Wharf, Clerkenwell and the West End. He names a couple of reasons for this:
Cancer Research and the British Council are both international businesses that are looking to change the way they operate. We sell this on a strong health and wellbeing agenda. Cost is certainly an element, for the level of transport links that we've got our deals are exceptionally good value. The other reason that Cancer Research are coming here is that they understand the amenity value of the park.
These amenity values are difficult to quantify. Walking around the Olympic Park today is strange. Westfield is absolutely rammed — its footfall numbers are reaching similar heights to its Olympics numbers — but beyond that, the area still feels somewhat sterile and incomplete. The River Lea isn't fully accessible and though they're open to the public, the old Olympic venues look reasonably quiet from the outside.
Chatting to Brian Daley — the Director of Venues at the Lee Valley VeloPark — paints an entirely different picture. "The VeloPark was handed over in Spring 2014 and since then we've had about half a million visitors through each year. The velodrome is open from eight o'clock in the morning through till ten o'clock at night — and we are full." Lots of these are taster sessions aimed at members of the local community, schools and corporate events.
There's still a piece missing in the Olympic Park puzzle; the cultural aspects which are coming in the next few years. Chapman explains that, "the British Council are also here because they promote British culture and they teach the best of British abroad. They're here because there's going to be the London College of Fashion here, the V&A and Sadler's Wells. So they see this as an emerging cultural part of London."
Those institutions are targeting an opening date of 2020, but for now there's a summer fairground on the site. Apart from Westfield, it's currently the only part of the park that's brimming with people.
'Regeneration' is a word that looms over the whole legacy project, but there are fears it's just a thinly-veiled code for gentrification. Thousands of jobs are moving to Stratford, but does this mean they're actually providing opportunities for the local community? Chapman admits that "by the nature of the fact that we're relocating businesses from other locations to here, a lot of jobs [are already taken]. But the big difference is that the local community now have the opportunity."
"We're also doing a lot during the construction. Roughly 25% of workers on site are sourced locally. We worked really hard with Newham to make sure we're employing local people." However, the term 'local people' has changed in Stratford. The plethora of new developments means that a lot of people who live here now are post-Olympics residents. Some of these developments have high percentage affordable housing aimed at those in need — East Village sits at 50%. Others do not compare so kindly.
The Olympic's legacy wasn't just about regenerating Stratford. There was also the plan to get the entire nation more active. The design of the new offices takes notice of this: the building has an outdoor exercise area, there's a focus on using steps instead of lifts — though obviously these are installed too — and there are masses of bike racks ready for morning commuters.
Moving the entire nation hasn't proven easy. Statistics from Sport England show that the number of people playing sports weekly hasn't changed over the past five years. Daley says that there's been a huge emphasis by the four local boroughs — Newham, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest and Hackney — to get people active. On the other hand he also says: "the Olympics were never going to be a panacea to obesity."
Refocusing on the Stratford aspect of Olympic legacy, there's a question looming overhead. Could this have happened without the Olympics? Would this area have been filled with offices, apartments, shops to the same extent as it will be in a few years? Perhaps there would have been even more space to play with, as there wouldn't have been the London Stadium, Velodrome, Aquatics Centre or Copper Box standing.
Massive regeneration projects happened before the Olympics and they will doubtlessly happen again without them. Tessa Jowell, the former Minister for Sport, once told a parliamentary committee that regenerating Stratford without hosting the Olympics would cost £300 million. That estimate may have been a bit off, but that figure pales in comparison to the near £9 billion cost of the games.
We ask Chapman whether he thinks Stratford could've been regenerated without the Olympics. He doesn't hesitate. "Yes". We're a bit taken aback by the assuredness of the answer, so he continues;
There was so much land here with excellent rail connections. There's almost nowhere else in London like this. The Olympics accelerated the process as it forced everyone to work to a stricter timeframe.
He also points out that Westfield was eyeing up Stratford before the games, as far back as 2004. "We're looking for our next major project in London and it's proving difficult because there just isn't enough space."
Unsurprisingly the answer from Daley was somewhat different. "Could it have happened... probably. Would it have happened? Or would it have been so full on? Never." He points to the lethargy of redevelopments in the Docklands and in the north of England as evidence for this. He's not wrong — the timescale of the change here is impressively unmatched.
It's too early to give any definitive judgement on the Olympic legacy. The process is still ongoing. Chapman suggests that because of planning permission, building around the Olympic Park won't finish up until 2024. As for now it's obvious things have changed in Stratford. It's just a little less clear as to who they've changed for.