Even five years ago, opening a Sainsbury’s on Wallis Road would have been, at best, a poor business idea. Like many things in Hackney Wick, the supermarket is a paradox: cheaper than many of its local competitors, the store is a sign of the area’s increasing exclusivity; it represents development which is shifting the economic, social, and cultural demographics of the tinyyet- vibrant neighbourhood.
Just up the road from Hackney Wick’s first chain supermarket, another mid-rise building bears scaffolding showing a modern art-deco living room. 80-84 Wallis Road is another paradox; the residential part of the building almost certainly markets itself to a more upscale crowd than would have lived in Hackney Wick five years ago; but it also houses Stone Studios, an experiment which hopes to preserve the area’s local character in the face of economic pressure.
The Creative Land Trust (CLT) has acquired space at 80-84 Wallis Road from Telford Homes, committing to rent it out to 180 artists at a rate “not exceeding £14.5 per square foot.” Backed by the Mayor of London, Arts Council England, Outset, and Bloomberg Philanthropies, the CLT has a mission to help secure “long term affordable workspace for artists” through buying buildings and renting them out to low-cost studio providers.
The organization sees this acquisition as an exciting first step in their effort to offer 1,000 studios in the next five years. The CLT hopes to help slow the displacement of artists communities from onceaffordable neighbourhoods; a problem which often leads creative people to move further and further out to the urban margins or to cities like Lisbon, Athens, and Berlin.
“What we saw is that if you take on freeholds then you stop the problem, because you can control the land and then you control the rent,” says Yves Blais, Operations Manager at the Creative Land Trust. “The displacement pattern has been normalised for so long, that people just assume the artists are really happy and comfortable and flexible to move every year or two.” But Blais argues that the opportunity to put down roots and form communities, like those in Hackney Wick, are integral to creative productivity.
“If people manage to stay inside the community, they’re not having to think every few years, I’m going to put my practice on pause while I try and find another workspace,” says Richard Priestley, founder of Cell Studios, a workspace provider which occupied 80-84 Wallis Road before it was re-developed. Cell Studios has won a tender to manage one of the blocks of affordable workspace in the new building, the rest of which will be residential. Priestley hopes that artists who used to work in the building will return to the new space, which he sees as “completing the cycle”. And the CLT’s commitment to keeping the space affordable means that Stone Studios will be able to rent studios out at a cheaper rate than before the building was developed.
Alex Russell, chair of the Community Development Trust, an association of local businesses, is optimistic that the move will provide a degree of “certainty and ability to plan” for artists in Hackney Wick.. “At least here we know we have a landlord who has aligned with supporting the creative industries.” She hopes that other organizations follow their model.
Despite the commitment to ensuring affordable workspace, the new building at Wallis Road is a far cry from the informally converted warehouses which define Hackney Wick’s creative community; essentially blank canvases. “It’s important for artists to be able to edit the space as they want. I think that’s a really important part of the studio,” says local artist Ben Dawson. For their part, the CLT has committed to building the space to Cell’s requirements. But the building’s formal rent structures and top-down development will likely allow for less creative freedom than the selfmodelled work/live spaces which defined the area, for better or worse.
Despite their commitment to affordable prices, local artist Josephine Chime is concerned that the space will still exclude minorities and working class people. “I worry that Stone Studios is going to be just white, connected people,” she says, “It’s not enough for places to be affordable; they have to be genuinely inclusive of groups that might be creative but might not have the social capital to get spaces like this.” Securing a long-term future for creative people, Chime argues, requires genuine engagement with marginalized and underrepresented groups.
But affordable workspace is only one part of the equation for retaining artists, and development has already put pressure on the price of Hackney Wick’s work/live warehouses. “The bit that we haven’t cracked yet is the living situation,” says Russell. “Creating lots of studio space is a good thing, but if people can afford to work here but have to live miles away, that’s not really sustainable,” she adds. The CLT is open to expanding to housing provision in the future, but for now remains focused on workspace.
If anything, the mixed feelings around Stone Studios reflect a weariness of developers, landlords, and new buildings in general from a community which repurposed an industrial area into a creative hub, but has often seen that culture quickly swept away.
No one is under the illusion that the CLT will bring back the neighbourhood as it was before the Olympics. But if they are interested in breaking the cycle of urban displacement for creative people, securing long-term workspaces for local artists seems like a good place to start.