Thursday, 2 March 2017

Centre Point: Another Marmite tower for London

Artistic impression of a refurbished Centre Point. Courtesy: © Rick Mather Architects

By Paul Coleman

Some Londoners love Centre Point. 
Others loathe it. That makes Centre Point another of London’s ‘Marmite’ skyscrapers.*
Property tycoon Harry Hyams’ honeycombed block stands sentinel and slightly convex over Tottenham Court Road tube and Crossrail station. Completed way back in 1966, (the last time an England team won the football World Cup), Hyams’ 34-storey edifice stands as a looming monument to a 20th century gluttony for speculative office space. 
But Centre Point is being refurbished, with 82 new luxury apartments for global investors but only 13 ‘affordable’ flats for local people. Prices vary from a 'modest' £3 million for a three-bedroom apartment to £55m for a five-bedroom suite with grand views over London.
Will Centre Point become a monument to a 21st century global gluttony for speculative investment in London’s uber high-priced real estate market?

Trophy asset
Yes, more than likely, says the Khaleej Times. In January 2017, the Dubai-based English newspaper and website advises its Gulf investor readership: 'If you are looking to own a postcode in central London, a buying opportunity has just cropped have a chance to own a slice of British history since Centre Point is a Grade 2 listed building.' 
The Khaleej Times cites Victoria Garrett as the in-depth font of Centre Point sales knowledge. Garrett is a partner and head of a team at Knight Frank - the global property investment agency - that sells 'investment and trophy assets to High Net Worth and Ultra High Net Worth Individual clients within the Middle East'. 
'We had a private afternoon high tea for a group of ladies in Dubai who are interested in buying in the UK, to give them an overview of this development (Centre Point),' says Garrett, who has 13 years of experience of matching HNW and UHNWI clients with investment and trophy properties.

Missed opportunity 
To be an UHNWI, you'll need at least $30m in investable assets. So, by definition, Garrett's HNW and UHNWI target market is tiny - compared, of course, to all the people who need a home. But the HNW and UHNWI pie makes up for in cash what it likes in numbers. Globally, over 212,600 Ultra High Net Worth Individuals hold a combined $30 trillion in net assets, according to a World Ultra Wealth Report by Wealth-X. They control 12% of global wealth, despite making up just 0.004% of the world's adult population. 
Centre Point apartments aren't likely to be unsold for long. 
But questions remain. The adjacent on-site block of just 13 ‘affordable homes’ aimed at local people means Centre Point represents a missed opportunity. Surely, Centre Point could have made a more significant contribution to resolving the chronic shortage of genuinely affordable housing suffered by working people in London?

Located in the borough of Camden, designed by Richard Seifert and protected as a designated Grade II listed building, Centre Point sits close to some of central London’s most desirable neighbourhoods - Bloomsbury, Covent Garden, Fitzrovia and Soho. Centre Point’s fresh controversy over its lack of affordable homes connects strongly with its past. In the 1970s, despite its pre-cast concrete Brutalist architectural merits, Centre Point's vast office floors fail to attract a singular one-off tenant. Hyams refuses to let it piecemeal to multiple occupiers. 
Squatters and students then take it over in 1974, protesting at the lack of decent housing in central London. Later, a homeless charity even adopts the moniker Centrepoint and bases itself at the foot of the block. Business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry, makes Centre Point its HQ for 30 years before moving closer to the City of London’s financial district.

Hence, more empty than occupied during its fifty year history, Centre Point was always going to be a prime target for a developer to come along and subject the complex to an OTRC – a property market acronym for an Office To Residential Conversion.
Sure enough, Almacantar acquires Centre Point in 2011. The central London property specialist’s OTRC makes the complex a prime target for speculative global HNW and UHNWI investors; people looking to stash their cash in the most profitable niches of the world’s real estate market. Of course, Almacantar present their scheme publicly as a major benefit to Londoners. ‘The project will breathe new life into this landmark, giving it a sustainable and exciting future for the benefit of all Londoners and visitors to the capital,’ says Kathrin Hersel, Almacantar’s development director.  

Centre Point will challenge other uber­ expensive London schemes on grounds of controversial exclusivity; even though it stands outside London’s so-called ‘prime central platinum triangle’ of Knightsbridge, Belgravia and Mayfair.
London’s real estate industry will herald Centre Point as right up there with the likes of the Candy Brothers’ One Hyde Park, a development overlooking Hyde Park and Knightsbridge, where one apartment sold for £140m in 2014.
Instead, Centre Point is better compared with the Shell Centre, another OTRC, on the South Bank. The former London HQ of the global oil company, Shell, is being converted into 877 new homes. Prices start at a heated £540,000. 

Almacantar engaged Rick Mather Architects to renew Centre Point’s components; the 117-metre high tower and a glazed bridge link to a low-rise block with shops and apartments. Conran and Partners reconfigures the complex’s bland office interiors to incorporate 82 new luxury apartments (16 x one bedroom, 37 x two-bedroom, 26 x three bed, two x four bed and a five-bedroom duplex. The complex also features a 30-metre pool, a spa, club and 41,780 square feet of restaurants and shops.
There’s only one deletion. Crossrail’s station construction at Tottenham Court Road removes a pond and fountain that gushed at the foot of the tower’s western frontage. Crossrail - London’s new east-west rail service (due to start in 2018) - gives Almacantar confidence the scheme will be a financial success. Crossrail links Centre Point at Tottenham Court Road to Heathrow Airport in just 30 minutes. ‘Centre Point is now the focus of Crossrail which will trigger an explosion in visitor numbers to this part of the West End,’ chirps Hersel. 
Garrett also chips in, pointing out that Centre Point and Tottenham Court Road will be the only point across London where Crossrail will meet with Crossrail 2, a proposed north-south London rail link. 

Hence, Londoners on average and lower incomes will still use Centre Point as a landmark. They will be able to float through Centre Point but will not be able to call it home. Almacantar says its refurbishment adds a ‘public piazza’ with shops, restaurants and ‘open air space’. However, all too often, ‘public’ and ‘open’ in 21st century London means public access and activity is regulated and restricted by patrolling private security guards.
The security industry loves London’s real estate boom – whether residential, retail or office. Expect to see a lot of security and surveillance as you munch a pizza on the piazza.

Centre Point and its OTRC ilk also create opportunities for other contractors. For instance, the conversion needs a lot of bathroom suites and ceramics.
In 2016, C.P. Hart Contracts secures a deal to install bathrooms in the 82 apartments and penthouses. Established by Charles Percival Hart in 1937, the company creates high quality traditional and contemporary bathrooms.
The London-based bathroom company says Dornbracht digital showers, vanity units and sanitaryware will adorn Centre Point’s apartments.
Bathrooms will also feature Bette freestanding baths and Duravit WCs. 

Dark and empty 
But how many apartment owners will enjoy their state-of-the-art showers?
How many Duravits will be flushed?
Middle East and Far Eastern UHNWIs are expected to snap up the vast majority of Centre Point’s apartments. Very few will actually take up residence.
So, just like London’s other new high profile residential towers, such as One Hyde Park and the St George Wharf Tower at Vauxhall, many apartments inside Centre Point could be sold but remain unoccupied.  
Centre Point then becomes a towering safe deposit box of trophy assets.
An OTRC full of HWN and UHNWI cash seeking a yield. 
A jungle of acronyms but not an anachronism..yet.
A central London monument to 21st century globalised inequality.
Like a vast, dark and empty vessel of Marmite.

*Marmite: a sticky, dark brown and salty food paste, made from yeast - the by-product of brewed beer - producing a taste that polarises opinion.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, 2017

Sunday, 25 December 2016

George Michael 1963-2016

Extremely saddened to hear of the Christmas Day passing of Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, aged 53, globally known as George Michael, the London-born singer, songwriter, producer and influential global pop star.
Born in East Finchley and raised in Kingsbury, George's death evokes a genuine outpouring of grief and sympathy across London and throughout the world.
George Michael is also the first artist to have sung at the new Wembley Stadium when it opened in 2007.
Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (25 June 1963 – 25 December 2016).

© London Intelligence, London, December 2016

Monday, 24 October 2016

Will London be ready for driverless cars?

The car guzzles unleaded petrol from the pump and the supermarket slurps £1.15 per litre from my wallet.
I know that geo-political chicanery, oil-producing dictatorships and petro-dollar deals somehow fill my tank with this explosive pollutant mix.
But I'm not troubled by all of that today. I'm joining a queue of other drivers fuming as they watch an elderly gent struggle to inflate his tyres. 
Visiting a London petrol station in 2016 feels expensive and archaic.

Even car manufacturers agree.
They say driverless cars, or ‘autonomously driven vehicles’, will be ubiquitous within five years. Makers like Mercedes-Benz say driverless cars will be the biggest paradigm shift since society replaced horses with horsepower over a century ago.
As soon as 2020, according to some vehicle makers, we will be able to sit with our backs to the traffic reading our iPads whilst automatically being driven to our destination.
For instance, Mercedes Benz says its autonomously driven F015 interacts with passengers, pedestrians, other vehicles and its surroundings (above).
Mercedes-Benz describes the F015 as a ‘mobile living space’ that allows passengers to use their time in a variety of ways while on the road.*
‘Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society,’ says Dr Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars.
‘The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport.”

Naturally, Londoners will have to trust the autonomous technology to be safe.
But even if we embrace technology that replaces us as drivers, is London anywhere near ready for a transformation that will render everyone a passenger?
Driverless vehicles would make thousands of taxi, bus and mini-cab drivers and chauffeurs not only redundant but also obsolescent.

How will Dr Zetsche’s ‘mobile living spaces’ impact on London’s existing roads and on other transport modes?
Will they eliminate human error, accidents and fatalities?
Sure, electric cars will cut pollution but will there be enough charging points?
Would London’s ‘petrol heads’ that like to own and drive their own cars have to pay a premium to stay on the roads?
Will police cars, ambulances and fire engines be automatically piloted too?
Londoners would also be able to forget drivers’ insurance, driving tests and licenses. Londoners might be riding in Apple and Google cars – and most might share or hire cars, just like they rent bicycles in 2016.
So many questions – and yet, barring a few magazine articles, there is little or no conversation in London about possible answers.

The driverless and electric Navya ARMA bus (© Navya 2016)

London is already behind other cities.
For instance, bus passengers are already using two operational driverless buses in Lyon, the French city that pioneered self-service bike rentals.
Up to 15 passengers can ride two electric minibuses that operate a ten-minute route at an average speed of 10km (6 miles) per hour.
The four-metre long Navya-designed ARMA buses (above), costing £170,000 each, carry lasers, cameras and sensors to avoid collisions – although they cannot manoeuvre in traffic.
However, Navya chief executive Christopher Sapet says bigger driverless buses and then cars will soon follow.
‘A driverless French car operating in cities can become a reality as soon as 2018.’

Amidst all of this welter of innovation and paradigm shifts, I notice one thing about the driverless bus. 
Those tyres will still need inflating.

* The F015 is over five metres long and just 1.5 metres high, similar to an S-Class Mercedes. A capsule-like bodyshell is constructed from carbon fibre reinforced plastic, aluminium and steel. A flat front windscreen covers the roof. LED lights provide a variety of lighting functions. Inside, a lounge-like cabin offers swivelling seats that can be turned to face each other while travelling. Six high-resolution display screens integrated throughout the interior allow passengers to use touch, gestures, or eye movements to navigate, browse, or see outside the car.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, London, October 2016

Friday, 24 June 2016

EU Referendum: London and a Future Commonwealth

The first basic rights in a democracy must be the right of people to elect those who make their laws and the right to remove them. 
Those rights had been denied to the British people for 43 years by the complex structures and anti-democratic institutions that saw a Common Market mutate into a European Union superstate.
Hence, lashed by mid-summer rain, 17,410,742 British people (52% of voters) exercised a much-delayed and long-promised democratic right to vote to ‘Leave’ the European Union.
Their 'Brexit' choice ought not to be so surprising. 
Frustration marked with a cross in a box.
For decades, successive ideologically driven neo-liberal Conservative and New Labour governments presided over the deliberate destruction of the UK's manufacturing base, destroying communities in the process.
The EU did nothing to halt this destruction - and its corporate free market process fuelled it.
So, the 'Leave' vote has been a light-sleeper for the past 30 years. 


The referendum shows people still understandably vote with one hand on their wallets and purses.
Londoners inside the London economic bubble voted 60-40 to ‘Remain’.
But white working class people struggling inside a low-wage economy in the North, Midlands and Wales swung the UK out of the EU.
They don't believe the EU offers economic security or better life chances. 
They ignored crude ‘Remain’ campaign threats that economic meltdown, financial Armageddon and armed conflict will result from a ‘Leave’ vote.
More subtle propaganda has come out of North Korea. 

What next? 
Hence, the British people’s troubled historical relationship with Europe enters another uncertain phase.
So, what next?
Londoners aside, the British people have decisively rejected any withering idea that the EU could be democratically reformed. An honest and open United States of Europe, with an elected President and Congress, now seems a dead duck.
German and French corporate interests dominate the EU.  
An unelected European Commission still prevails in Brussels.
Far-right nationalism scapegoats refugees and seeks race, civil and interstate war.
Greek, Spanish and Portuguese economies, bullied by the EU's dominant bankers and politicians, teeter over a precipice of meltdown and bailout.
The entire EU edifice looks very shaky.
It isn’t surprising that citizens of the UK and other European countries don’t like being subjects of the EU.
Referendum contagion across the EU might ensue.
The EU house looks set to stagger and crumble.

A brighter future, though, remains possible.
An alternative could be that the UK harmonises economic, trading, education and cultural exchange relationships with EU, European and other nations across the world – each relationship agreed with the consent of the British people through Parliament.
A negotiated peace with Russia would also bring major dividends.

Inevitably, all of this would be a slower process but would prove more durable, rewarding and moral.
Britain, of course, already has a Commonwealth, that emerged after the decline and fall of the British Empire.
But Britain largely turned its back on the Commonwealth.
And London turned its back on the rest of the UK.
India/Pakistan and Bangladesh, South Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the West Indian nations will need to forgive Britain and appreciate the mutual trading and cultural opportunities that can arise.
And, Londoners will also need to forge new economic links with the rest of England, Wales, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  
It's time for us to forget the crumbling EU - and move on and embrace a wider world of opportunities and hope.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, June 2016

Thursday, 23 June 2016

EU Referendum: Stay or Exit, underlying problems will remain

Rain falls on Londoners this morning (Thursday 23 June) as we cast our votes in what is billed as the ‘most important ballot of a generation’.
We're being asked: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’
A vote today in favour of British exit from the European Union might adversely impact the UK economy in the short-term and bring down the government.
And a vote to remain – the status quo – might provide a short-term boost to share prices and the pound.

But whether ‘Brexit’ or ‘Remain’ triumphs, the bigger structural troubles for the UK, European and global economies will still be there on Friday morning – unemployment, a lack of investment, low or no economic growth, massive banking and corporate leverage and increasing delinquency, rising private householder debt, prohibitively expensive housing markets, creaking public services and austerity, and ever-widening income inequalities.

To some extent, the likely political fallout from the UK’s EU referendum distracts from weak economic growth and perverse asset markets, such as London real estate.
A ‘Remain’ win might rally markets and the pound.
But this rally won’t alter the status quo nor change the structural faults that undermine the UK and European political economy.
We’ll still be in debt and bubble territory.
We’ll still be mired in Austerityville.
EU, stay or go, there is no exit from these immense problems.
They will still remain with us.

© Paul Coleman, London, June 2016

Monday, 22 February 2016

Iconic K6 telephone box turned into micro-retail unit - Hampstead, Camden, north London

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence 2016
“We sell coffees, tea, hot chocolate, cakes, croissants, muffins, pies and pasties,” says Umar Khalid.
He stands beside an iconic ‘K6’ telephone box on Hampstead High Street in north London.
Converted to a ‘micro-retail unit’, the K6 is formerly the kind of compact phone box in which Londoners used to shelter from the rain, to secretly canoodle, and to even make the odd phone call.

Umar and Alona Guerra lease the box from the Red Kiosk Company that equipped it with power, a lock and – crucially – with retail planning consent from Camden Council.
“Passers-by are really surprised,” says Umar. “We’re getting busier everyday.”
Red Kiosk leases such boxes around the UK from £6 per day. The company donates some of its profits to the Thinking Outside the Box charitable trust that helps local unemployed and homeless people.

BT sold disused K6s in 2012 after mobile phones killed off demand for phone boxes. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, some 8,000 K6s punctuate city streets and village greens and country lanes around the UK.
In London, homeless people still take shelter inside some of them.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, February 2016

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Race for the White House: Joe Klein and Hillary, Chomsky on Bernie, and Canada runs for America.

Barack Obama's second term as United States President is coming to an end.
But the 'race for the White House' is already heating up.
Click on the links below to check lively interviews and interventions from the past few days.

Joe Klein of Time talks tough to Hillary Clinton. Klein asks Clinton: "If the former Secretary of State were to talk to her younger self about what she knows now, what would she say to her?"

Noam Chomsky says Clinton's rival Bernie Sanders may describe himself as a 'socialist' but a "he's basically a New Dealer".

And, finally, one perspective from across the border, as 'Canada' - the country - declares its candidacy for the American Presidency! 
"Canadians know America is a great country...we just want to make it good again."

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, February 2016