Changing London

Queen Elizabeth Park awaits its audience….

The stage was set, a swing band was playing and bar staff were ready to serve drinks. And with the much-predicted rain holding off, the setting by the wild reeds of the River Lea couldn’t be better.

But one thing missing from the By the River festival this afternoon, sadly, was an audience. At just before 2pm I counted only three people in the ‘crowd’ (vastly outnumbered by the security and catering staff on duty).

As one of a series of events to mark the opening of the first phase of Queen Elizabeth Park (formerly Olympic Park), it should have been more popular.

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Queen Elizabeth Park awaits its audience

But we shouldn’t write off the Olympic legacy in the area just yet, quite the opposite in fact. From the trickle of people that walk along the canal tow paths around here on a Sunday afternoon, this London district is going to mushroom to become a major population centre within the next 20 to 30 years.

The first residents are moving into East Village, properties which formed the athletes’ living quarters during the 2012 Games. Half of the 2,818 homes in E20 are being offered through a shared-ownership scheme (with 25 per cent shares on sale from £67,500) and the remainder are being let through a Qatari-backed company (branded Get London Living).

And developers are gearing up to start work on many other new developments, such as Stratford Halo and Strand East. This corner of Newham is fast becoming one giant construction site.

Some of Olympic venues have now also re-opened to the public. The Copper Box, where handball and other sports was played during the Games, was this afternoon hosting a charity basketball event (it’s all now home to the capital’s only professional basketball team, the London Lions). But it’s a versatile space in that badminton courts are available to rent and, next weekend, punters will watch a boxing match.

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The Copper Box

Over at the Olympic media centre, things are looking up too. It has been re-branded as a “digital centre”, run by a consortium called iCity, and BT Sport (which has rights to a selection of Premiership matches this season) has its main studios there.

When it is fully opened Queen Elizabeth Park will stretch to 500 acres (the largest recreational space to be created in Europe for 150 years), but right now visitors are drawn to the north of the site. There the Tumbling Bay adventure playground has opened for children and is next to the Timber Lodge, “a creative hub for the community that blends naturally into the natural landscape” (marketing speak for a nice little café serving pretty good coffees, which is run by a not-for-profit organisation, with a room that can be used for events).

As the leaflet I picked up in the café explains, the “best is yet to come”. Next year Spring the rest of Queen Elizabeth Park will open, providing visitors to the tall red sculpture, the ArcelorMittal Orbit observation tower and a new public swimming pool in the former Aquatics centre.

And then in 2016, once some alterations have been made (including the addition of retractable seats that can be brought to cover the running track for football matches), West Ham will move into Olympic Stadium.

There’s lots of work to be done but, in time, Queen Elizabeth Park will truly become a place to live and to visit in its own right (not just pass through on the way to Westfield Stratford). And as it gets to be known, I’m sure that even people will come to music festivals on a Sunday afternoon.

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