Passengers ride in a London bus past a brightly painted building in the Kings Cross area of central London October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Toby Melville

If you’re looking for a neighborhood that explains the city today, this is it.

If you want to see how London has changed, come to Kings Cross. The central London neighborhood, where The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and Bloomberg Philanthropies are hosting the CityLab 2015 conference October 18-20, is an almost perfect barometer of the radical changes Britain’s capital has seen over the past two decades.

Long a rundown, neglected area—with two dilapidated railway stations at its heart—Kings Cross has been successfully reinvented as an international transit hub, art world center, and corporate office cluster, so far without entirely losing its character. In stripping away decades of grime and neglect, however, developers have also raised concerns in a city that is increasingly unequal and unaffordable. It is a fair question to ask: is Kings Cross an exemplary success story, or a cautionary tale?

If you’d mentioned Kings Cross to a politician 30 years ago, they’d probably have winced. In the 1980s, Kings Cross was notoriously run-down, famous for street prostitution and drug dealing. Things improved in the 1990s when the warehouses flanking its canal became a center for underground nightlife and artist studios, but a contemporary reporter quoted in this piece still wrote that:

“If King’s Cross were human it would have crow’s feet, broken veins, a beer belly, stretch marks, and a filthy cackle.”

This sense of unlovely sleaze was typified by the two railway stations at the neighborhood’s heart. Once two of the grandest, most ambitious terminus buildings in the world, they had become poorly maintained places where few with a choice chose to linger. Kings Cross Station was hidden behind an ugly 1970s awning, a shabby space that reached its nadir when a 1987 fire beneath an escalator spread to kill 31 people. Spectacular neo-gothic St. Pancras Station next door had become an exquisite fossil, its drainage basin of train routes dried up to almost nothing, its former hotel shuttered and empty.

Passengers walk through the rehabilitated King's Cross station in London. (REUTERS/Paul Hackett)

Return today and the area’s transformation is spectacular, not least its stations. Kings Cross’s awning has been cleared away to create a public square showcasing its glorious original facade, with shops and ticket office dispatched to a dramatic but un-intrusive domed annex. An extended St. Pancras is now a bustling departure point for trains to Paris and Brussels, its hotel reopened and its attics turned into lavish apartments. Its floor has been scraped away to create a warren of shops in its former Victorian catacomb, as you can see in these before and after shots.  

The transformation is more dramatic still when you reach the stations’ former warehouse hinterlands, a huge 67-acre brownfield site that has offered an all but unprecedented opportunity. The goods yards once occupied by nightclubs and workshops are now covered by a sweeping public square that hosts London’s largest art school. Major companies are relocating here, including The Guardian newspaper and an upcoming new headquarters for Google.

Seven art galleries pepper the area and the canal-side is packed with strollers on sunny weekends, filing past banks lined with houseboats and a long-standing miniature wetland reserve. There is even a naturally filtered pond for open-air swimmers. All around, decent if unremarkable new apartment buildings continue to go up—kept medium-rise to protect views of the city from the hills of North London. Older and newer buildings blend comfortably, seamed with open space. So far, the area has avoided that arid, artificial air typical of new developments waiting to take root. Compared to the haphazard redevelopment of London’s Docklands, the project is close to exemplary.

And yet. While Kings Cross has been touted by many as a regeneration success story, for others it has rung alarm bells in failing to match London’s true needs. The city is starving for affordable housing, for example. Initial reports suggested the Kings Cross redevelopment would help with this, the local council promising 50 percent of its new housing stock would be affordable. As of spring this year, developers had whittled that proportion down to 33 percent. Some housing for affordable rent is in fact already in place, but if Londoners are cynical about developers, it’s because they’ve seen promises like this backed down from so many times before.

There’s also a problem with some of the area’s new public spaces: they aren’t strictly public at all. Instead, they’re what are called POPS, or privately owned public spaces, where private owners can dictate who enters, an approach that was used to bar London’s Occupy protestors from an apparently public square elsewhere in the city in 2011. To warn Kings Cross visitors that the ground beneath them is not public, a sign at one key pedestrian route into the area reads, “Please enjoy this private estate considerately." Finally, while it’s crass to mourn dereliction, it’s perhaps less so to grieve for lost creative spaces, those underexploited, potential-filled zones on which cities thrive—zones of which London’s supply is dwindling fast.

In a city as hungry for space as London, it would be criminal to leave a prime site like Kings Cross underused, even if the largely successful redevelopment has had its proclaimed social mission diluted. It would also be shortsighted, nonetheless, not to worry how London will continue to be either affordable or creative once all its Kings Crosses are finally tidied up and rebuilt. In the meantime, it’s still fascinating to visit the area and see London’s future going up before your eyes.

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