It’s official: London Mayor Sadiq Kahn has confirmed that City Hall will move from its current bulbous, Foster + Partners-designed home on the south bank of the River Thames to The Crystal, a deep green complex operated by German energy and automation giant Siemens at Royal Victoria Dock in East London. Completed in 2012, the latter building, located adjacent to the Emirates Air Line cable car system, was designed by WilkinsonEyre with Arup as civil engineer and the London branch of Perkins+Will (Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will at the time) acting as interiors architect on the roughly $40 million project. The planned relocation, first formally floated by Kahn in June of this year, should be complete by the end of 2021.
As relayed to BBC News by a spokesperson for Kahn, the move will save about $80 million over the next five years.
The current City Hall, which somewhat confusingly refers to both the physical building itself and, colloquially, the Mayors’ Office- and London Assembly-comprising governmental agency, the Greater London Authority (GLA), that populates it, isn’t exactly aging or deficient in size. Opened in 2002, just two years after the formation of the GLA, City Hall has served the mayoralty and 25-member London Assembly well over the past 18 years. However, the landmark structure on the Thames is privately-owned by a Kuwaiti investment group with the increasingly cash-strapped GLA paying upwards of $14 million annually to lease the space, with a sizable rent increase on the horizon.
Operated by Siemens as the ultra-efficient centerpiece of the city’s Green Enterprise District regeneration zone until just last year, the under-occupied Crystal is now owned by a subsidiary of the GLA already, which purchased it from Siemens in 2016. There are hopes that the presence of a new City Hall will also help to further spur development in the immediate East London vicinity. “The Royal Docks is an amazing place, and we have the opportunity to turbo-charge the regeneration of the area, just as the opening of City Hall did for its surroundings,” said Kahn in a news statement.
The savings incurred from transitioning into an arrangement untethered from annual lease obligations is all the more crucial during a time when the British capital city is reeling from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. (Relatedly, England is now reentering lockdown mode as COVID cases surge across the United Kingdom). But as noted by the BBC, the city will need to spend a significant amount of money on security upgrades and renovations at The Crystal as it was originally built as an exhibition space, not a bureaucratic office building. What’s more, the facility also has a smaller footprint than the Foster-designed facility in Southwark (75,000 square feet of floor space versus 185,000 square feet of floor space across ten floors), which will require some staffers to work in a secondary location or remotely from home which many are already currently doing during the pandemic.
“Given our huge budget shortfall, and without the support we should be getting from the government, I simply cannot justify remaining at our current expensive office when I could be investing that money into public transport, the Met police, and the London fire brigade,” explained Kahn. “I know that City Hall is a landmark building for many—but as mayor I will always focus my severely limited budget resources on frontline public services and supporting Londoners and our recovery from this pandemic, rather than on high City Hall building costs.”
While city officials are largely in support of Kahn’s cost-saving, city services-benefitting relocation scheme, others, largely Conservatives, feel it to be misguided. “The mayor was offered a substantial rent reduction by the landlord of the existing building,” BBC News reported Susan Hall, Leader of the GLA Conservatives, as saying. “Instead of accepting it, Khan has chosen a flawed plan to move. We will doubtlessly see costs spiral and fewer savings than he promises.”
As noted by Kahn’s office, once the transition is complete The Crystal will be rechristened as City Hall. As for how the current City Hall will be reused, that remains unknown.