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Has London Sold its Soul?
Londoners are complaining that they’ve been sold down the river following Urbicon/New World Property Group’s announcement this week of plans to build a 500 metre-long ‘luxury’ golden superblock stretching across the Thames. The residential apartment block is part of the proposed Greenwich Power Station redevelopment, and the latest in a spate of contentious new developments explicitly targeting overseas buyers, that have dubiously ‘slipped under the radar’ in formerly sacrosanct parts of central London.
Artist’s Impression: 500 metre-long luxury ‘gold bullion’ that will stretch across the Thames.
The Greenwich proposal is the latest in a spate of contentious new developments explicitly targeting overseas buyers, that have dubiously ‘slipped under the radar’ in formerly sacrosanct parts of central London.
Artist’s Impression: Power Apartments, www.urbicon-new-world.com
The announcement of the Greenwich redevelopment comes on the eve of this year’s London Festival of Architecture – somewhat ironically themed, ‘capital’– calling into question what it is that Londoners are really celebrating. Critics warn that the Greenwich proposal represents a gross overdevelopment of the site, but even more disconcerting is Urbicon’s success in securing air rights to the river Thames, paving the way for increasing privitisation of the cherished public asset. Urbicon/New World is also responsible for the similarly over-scaled 40-storey residential Berburry Apartments [sic] currently under construction in Westminster, that when completed, will tower over Big Ben, supplanting the image of London’s iconic national timepiece with a monument to one of Britain’s biggest luxury exports.
Time to put a stop to foreign investment? Berburry Towers dwarfs Big Ben
Urbicon CEO Moneo Pauli says that the development at Greenwich will provide 3400 new homes once completed, but ‘No More Homes for Millionaires’ campaigners insist that, like the Battersea redevelopment – which sold more than half of its net sales in the first three days to foreign investors[i] – it will further exacerbate the housing crisis for Londoners.
Overseas investment in central London property is primarily to blame for the runaway house prices across the city, suburbs and beyond. Even well-paid white collar Londoners are unable to break into the buyers market, which is in turn forcing up rents across the board[ii]. Intense overseas interest in exclusive addresses like Bishops Avenue (aka “Billionaires Row”) in North London, and now Hill Street, Mayfair – which made headlines recently as the home of Britain’s most expensive mid-terraced house (£90M)[iii] – has resulted in a bizarre phenomenon of ‘reverse gentrification’. About a third of all homes along these streets are rotting, many of which were purchased some 20 years ago and have remained empty ever since. The absence of owner-occupiers has hurt local businesses, with several forced into liquidation. Squatting is becoming increasingly problematic: local workers complain that they no longer feel safe and that if authorities do not act quickly, Hill Street will soon become a complete ‘no-go’ zone. At the same time, in a perverse and self-perpetuating cycle, developers have begun purchasing and clearing derelict properties to make way for new luxury apartments, which will be flogged back to foreign investors – oblivious to the transforming context.
Hill St Mayfair: from most expensive street in London to squatting haven
The over-scaled…Berburry Apartments currently under construction…will tower over Big Ben, supplanting the image of London’s iconic national timepiece with a monument to one of Britain’s biggest luxury exports.”
POST Magazine’s Dan Salmon – in London for the London Festival of Architecture – has been shocked by the extent of redevelopment on nearby Regent Street, “These towers seem to have sprung up almost overnight… Piccadilly Circus is a construction site… It’s all changing. They’re going to have to update their postcards!”
Two new Urbicon developments: Nash Apartments, Regent St (top) & Cirque at Piccadilly Circus
The Cirque Apartments – another controversial Urbicon development – has begun construction on the site of the former heritage listed London Pavilion Music Hall, which was until recently the home of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum. The company has defended the decision to demolish the 1885 building, citing a contextual response’: replacing the reified building with a digital image of it. But the public are concerned that the use of imagery cannot be regulated, “It’s bad enough that we’ve lost No. 1 Piccadilly Circus,” lamented one local retailer. “They should make sure that they retain the picture of it.”
— Dan Salmon (@dansalmonthe3rd) June 10, 2014
Using ‘neighbourhood character’ as their “get out of jail free” card, Urbicon promises a ‘Unique Piccadilly Circus Experience’, where buyers can pay a premium to escape reality and experience what it’s like to (literally) live life in the advertisements. With each apartment clad in its own digital billboard, the developers are expected to deliver the highest returns on record, ingeniously combining their property portfolio with advertising revenue in a strategy that is sure to resonate with overseas buyers wanting their own little piece of London.
Whether the Greenwich Power Station redevelopment will attract the same level of interest as its Battersea counterpart remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: the proposal has proven to be a timely catalyst in reigniting the debate over overseas investment in the UK housing market. Given the theme of this year’s London Festival of Architecture, and while we’ve got the attention of the politicians, leading institutions and built environment professionals, it would be a tragedy to let the opportunity escape for a robust discussion around the effects of economic policy on the social and urban fabric of the city, and ultimately its identity.
[i] “Britain’s most expensive mid-terraced home: Mayfair house on sale for staggering £90 MILLION with 21 bedrooms and space for four limousines in its garage, ” Daily Mail, February 13, 2014, accessed May 05, 2014
[ii] David G Green and Daniel Bentley, “Finding Shelter, Overseas Investment in the UK Housing Market,” Civitas: The Institute for the Study of Civil Society, February 2014, accessed May 03, 2014
[iii] Patrick Gower, “Londoners Priced Out of Housing Blame Foreigners: Real Estate,” Bloomberg, April 4, 2014, accessed April 30, 2014