The Crystal Palace subway is one of the few surviving remains from the era of Paxton’s Crystal Palace, destroyed in a spectacular blaze in 1936. It is a magnificent brick-vaulted structure under Crystal Palace Parade, built by Italian craftsmen in the mid 1850s after the palace was transferred from Hyde Park to the top of Sydenham Hill. Its purpose was to provide first class passengers arriving at the now demolished Crystal Palace High Level railway station with an imposing connection with the palace. For many years it has been closed to the public, except for occasional limited access for special events, because of safety concerns. The existing entrance, via a stairway from Crystal Palace Park, is in a dangerous state as the retaining walls have become unstable and require to be reinforced at considerable cost. The subway itself remains structurally sound.
In 2010 two local residents proposed a community-led initiative to persuade Bromley Council to make the access safe again to enable the subway to be reopened for public events. This initiative led in time to the formation of the Friends of the Crystal Palace Subway which was inaugurated in April 2013 with a constitution and a management committee chaired by Karl Richter (one of the two local people, both architects by training, behind the initiative) and composed, amongst others, of persons from the Crystal Palace Campaign and the Norwood, Sydenham and Dulwich Societies (the writer being the Dulwich Society representative). On account of the difficulties and likely delay and cost of gaining safe access from the park (Bromley) side of the subway, the Friends developed a plan for access from the Southwark side by installing a new gate in the wall along the western side of Crystal Palace Parade. This will allow access to an existing stairway down to the subway, which would be made safe by installation of a hand rail and other safety features. The Friends applied to Southwark for planning permission for these works and this was granted in May 2013. The Friends conducted fundraising to meet the cost of these works and this has also been successful, with over £20,000 paid or pledged. The Dulwich Society has contributed £300. The Friends are actively developing detailed specifications for its proposals and negotiating with prospective contractors
Progress has however been slowed down, at least for the time being, by the bombshell announcement on 3 October of a proposal by Mr Ni Zhaoxing, a Chinese property billionaire and chairman of the ZhongRong Group based in Shanghai, to make a £500 million investment in Crystal Palace Park, involving the full scale reconstruction of the destroyed glass palace in its original location. His plans have been welcomed by both the Mayor of London and Bromley Council, but there remain many uncertainties. Just how serious is Mr Ni in his purportedly philanthropic gesture and what might his real motives be? One claim is that it is to house his private art collection, but if so why do his plans apparently include the construction of an underground car park for 3,000 vehicles? This compares with the car park for 900 on the roof of the bitterly opposed multiplex project that was defeated in 2001. How can the already congested local road infrastructure cope with so many vehicles without wholesale destruction of much of the adjoining communities. The Chinese plans cut across the existing Master Plan for the park which, following a Public Enquiry, has planning permission and widespread local support and they go counter to the Crystal Palace Act 1990 which prohibits such a large structure on the top site.
The Friends have not yet taken an official position on the Chinese proposals, but are watching the position closely.