Gillett Square: £1.6m plan to revamp Dalston hub leaves small traders fearing for their futures

Markus at Kaffa Coffee in Gillett Square. Picture: Polly Hancock

Markus at Kaffa Coffee in Gillett Square. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

A year-long project to create more office space in Bradbury Street will turf out a string of small businesses operating in Gillett Square – with no guarantees about where they’ll go.

Some of the pods at Gillett Square. Picture: Polly Hancock

Some of the pods at Gillett Square. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Traders in Gillett Square traders still don’t know where they’ll move during a £1.5million revamp that could begin in just over four months.

Nine businesses in “pods” at the square, off Kingsland High Street, are “in limbo”, waiting to hear what Hackney Co-operative Developments (HCD) can arrange for them while the year-long building works take place. They could start as early as March if planning permission is secured.

HCD, a community interest company that rents the space off Hackney Council, secured a grant of £825,000 to put a glass façade on the shared office space at 3 Bradbury Street, which it must match with another £825,000 of its own cash.

It wants to make the space more eco-friendly and add an extra storey to create more workspace for tenants.

But while businesses inside the building have been offered a spot in Manor House and are being supported with a relocation package to help with moving, IT, HR and marketing and communications costs, the pod owners still have no idea where they might go.

HCD is exploring the possibility, with the council, of sending them to the north or east side of the square on council-owned land, but that is still far from certain.

Gillett Square in Dalston: 'a place for imams to rub shoulders with skateboarders' (not pictured).

Gillett Square in Dalston: 'a place for imams to rub shoulders with skateboarders' (not pictured). - Credit: Archant

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“Discussions are at an early stage – the council is broadly supportive of the plans, but everything will be subject to normal planning process and permissions,” they told tenants in a consultation that ended last month.

“HCD doesn’t yet know what to suggest as the best solution, as we are still establishing what is possible.”

The nine businesses include Kaffa, an Ethiopian coffee stall, Caribbean jerk chicken, a barber’s, NTS radio, a hula hoop shop, an Islamic bookshop, a Nigerian restaurant and a tailor.

One of the owners told the Gazette he is “going out of his mind” with worry and feels as though he is “in limbo”.

“They have promised we can come back in two years and sign a new lease,” he said, “but it’s not clear where we are going to go for one year [while the work is done]. They are pushing things forward too fast.

“At the moment there are lots of promises but I am suspicious that once planning permission is granted they can change their mind.”

All tenants have been told they’ll be relocated within the development, with a maximum 10pc cap on any rent increase – and no further rent increase within two years.

But the trader says it’s a worry even if he does end up getting moved within the square, and wonders if he and his neighbours will be compensated for loss of business.

“The square is going to be cut off, and there will be lots of lorries coming in,” he said. “If you stop working for three months you will be bankrupt. Over a whole year, how will I manage to pay my rent?”

HCD has admitted it anticipates “considerable disruption in terms of access, noise and dust” with the major works.

Metaphysics PhD student A’ishah Khalida is also worried about the proposals to her “favourite place in the world”.

“The space currently has the most amazing, effortless diversity, its own culture and history,” she said. “It simply won’t remain if there’s a Costa in place of Kaffa.

“Gillett Square used to be a car park, then a rough place, and now something unique and special by the work of the community over the years.

“With patience and emotional investment the square has become a place for imams to rub shoulders with skateboarders – where architects share coffee and a chat with gardeners, mathematicians and musicians.

“It’s a really special place. It doesn’t want Shoreditch-ification. It’s the talk of the square at the moment.”

Antonia Onigbode, a manager at HCD, told the Gazette tenants “do not need to worry”.

“We do not intend to lose sight of how valuable Gillett Square is for so many in the community,” she said.

“We don’t want to make Gillett Square inaccessible to any members of our community, or to allow the area to be gentrified. Over the last week we have had one-to-one conversations with all pod tenants and have updated the design and most of their concerns have been dealt with.”

A community consultation will take place at Vortex on Friday at 6pm.