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A far cry from Mayfair - NiNE ELMS
A far cry from Mayfair - NiNE ELMS
Published FT November 22 2008 Photograph from www.trekearth  jonybakery

The US embassy in London recently announced a possible move from its present location in Grosvenor Square, in the centre of the capital, to new premises in Nine Elms, south of the River Thames. The US ambassador has signed a conditional agreement with Ballymore, the Irish property developer, on a five-acre parcel of land in the borough of Wandsworth that is big enough to house the new embassy and achieve the preferred security buffer zone officials call “setback”. Although the current building has already been advertised in this section, the embassy is not expected to move earlier than 2013, pending approval from the US Congress; a year-long architectural competition; consideration by local planning officers; and, ultimately, a speedy construction process. It is a fortunate delay for the 700 staff and the 3,000 other workers indirectly associated with the embassy because Nine Elms in its current state is a far cry from Mayfair, with its leafy squares, elegant architecture, upmarket shops and chic eateries.

An industrial neighbourhood between Vauxhall Bridge and Chelsea Bridge, its southern boundary is defined by the tangle of commuter railway lines that snake in towards Waterloo and London Bridge stations from the suburbs and southern Home Counties. In estate-agent speak, though, the area has potential.

The officially identified “Nine Elms opportunity area”, 180 acres in total, contains the significantly derelict Battersea power station; Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the well-known animal rescue organisation; a clutch of parcel offices including the Royal Mail’s; a depot that was once Her Majesty’s Stationery Office; a riverside waste treatment plant; a quartet of gasometers; the New Covent Garden fruit and flower markets; a 1970s office block called Market Towers; and a smattering of small apartment blocks. About the only diplomat-friendly place is a Bentley car showroom and that will be relocated to create space for the new US compound.

“The arrival of the embassy is a real coup for the borough,” says Edward Lister, leader of Wandsworth council. “It will act as the catalyst for a new wave of investment. It’s easy to see how a new business and residential quarter could emerge in this central London location.”

In order to get some perspective on the whole area, I was hoisted up to the base of one of the chimneys of Battersea power station. The views are spectacular and the sweep of the Thames below gives a clear sense of its central location. Downstream are the Houses of Parliament, the Tate Britain gallery is visible on the opposite bank and just along the riverfront are the headquarters of MI6, the UK’s external intelligence agency, and the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park. The land stretching out beneath our perch, however, is a raft of warehouse rooftops, railway lines and waste ground.

“There isn’t really another central London area with this much development land in the hands of such a small number of landowners,” says my guide, Jeremy Castle of Treasury Holdings UK, which is developing the site for Real Estate Opportunities (REO), the owner of the derelict power station.

The 1930s building, a much-loved architectural delight designed by Gilbert Scott, has been a depressing sight for Londoners for almost 25 years. First theme park company Alton Towers Ltd and then Parkview failed to carry out development plans, leaving it roofless and slipping further into dereliction. It sits on 38 acres and REO, which bought the site in 2006, unveiled its own plans, for a £4bn redevelopment designed by architect Rafael Viñoly, earlier this year. The company’s priority is to put £150m into repairing the fabric of the structure before moving on to redevelop the land alongside with a mixed-use scheme containing 3,200 residential units, retail, office and public amenity space, including creating a two-acre plaza from the former boiler house, which will be left open to the skies. The controversial centrepiece of the proposal is a 300-metre-high glass chimney that echoes but also dwarfs the four power station stacks and is part of the developer’s environmentally conscious concept, designed to help it achieve a 67 per cent reduction in energy demand after construction.

“We’re in the planning stage at the moment,” says Castle, adding that his company, apparently in common with several others, is unperturbed about the effect of the global problems in the money markets. Bahrain-based Investate Realty announced in June that it had bought the 4.5-acre Tideway Wharf riverside plot and New Covent Garden Market, which occupies a 57-acre site, has recently been given permission by the UK government to redevelop itself. This might mean consolidating the existing buildings into a new and bigger market space on a single site, thus releasing some of the remaining land for sale.

A key issue for all concerned is transport. Although criss-crossed by railway lines, the heart of the district lacks a rail hub and the nearby Vauxhall Underground and overground stations are already reaching capacity. Talks about how best to improve provision of rail and bus services are under way between Transport for London (TfL), developers and Wandsworth council,

The Battersea Society, a residential civic organisation, earlier this year also published its own planning brief, proposing that: “All new buildings of all types in the Nine Elms area should be carbon neutral. In the case of residential buildings this will be a deliberate anticipation of the government’s target that all new homes should be carbon neutral from 2016 onwards.” Harvey Heath, secretary of the society, adds: “It’s important that developers keep buildings human at street level, so that it becomes a place for people.”

The predominantly industrial nature of the area means that currently there are only 725 residential units. However, the river frontage is bookended by two 21st-century developments of homes. On the riverfront in Vauxhall there is St George Wharf, with its distinctive butterfly-wing rooftops, and the developer, St George, continues to release new blocks, as it has done since 1998. Prices for the latest releases start at £399,950 for a one-bedroom, and £989,950 for a two-bedroom river-view flat with balcony and terrace. St George also has planning approval for a 180-metre, 50-storey, circular tower with 223 apartments. Hamptons International is selling a two-bedroom, double balcony unit at £595,000.

At the Battersea Park end, Berkeley Homes has just completed Chelsea Bridge Wharf’s final block, with only one flat remaining: an interior-designed, one-bedroom apartment with a balcony at £480,000.

Viridian, a development by Barratt Homes, sits directly opposite the power station site. The last 27 flats of 240 are being sold and Kieran Chalker of estate agency Garton Jones is contemplating buying himself. “Forget the Olympics site, stick your money in Nine Elms,” he recommends. “To be honest, I think the power station development has more impact than the possible US embassy move.”

Adds Spencer Cushing of estate agency John D Wood: “We’ve noticed more Americans making inquiries about the area in the past couple of years and after this embassy announcement I wouldn’t be surprised to see more speculative buyers.”

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Estate agencies Garton Jones , tel: 44 (0)207622 8800, www.gartonjones.co.uk John D Wood www.johndwood.co.uk Hamptons International www.hamptons.co.uk
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