After the American Embassy moves out of Mayfair there will be one huge glamorous hole in the ground to fill - if demolition is allowed. Probably the biggest opportunity the area is ever going to have to put up the poshest property in town.
© David George
Residents will breath one huge sigh of relief as Grosvenor Square, for so long partly blighted by an armoury of embassy guards and concrete boulders, will regain its cachet as London’s golden address.
So while the embassy staff are settling down to life on a five-acre site south of the river as neighbours of Battersea Dogs Home there will be bids going in for the 999-year lease on their former home said to be easily worth £500 million, even in these recessionary times.
The Candy brothers have confirmed their interest in the building. West End property agent Cushman & Wakefield is handling the sale, though any deal requires the approval of the US Congress.
The plans, and purchase of a five-acre site in Battersea, have been confirmed by ambassador Robert Tuttle, who says the departure will happen over the next five years.
'Brown Hart Gardens, one of the capital’s secrets, is an area to watch, especially as it is the lowest-value part of Mayfair'
At present, the 50-year-old embassy occupies the entire western side of the square and is held on the 999-year lease, granted in the Fifties by freeholder Grosvenor Estate. From the outset, the building was controversial. Designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen in “modern imperial style”, it is a hard contemporary presence in a mainly Georgian and neo-Georgian neighbourhood.
Following 9/11, ugly makeshift barricades around the embassy sparked a dispute with well-heeled, well-connected local residents, who complained that the fortress environment patrolled by armed police made them a terrorist target.
The embassy is not listed, which will help any redevelopment proposal, but English Heritage is considering whether protection is merited. If demolition is ruled out, converting the building into luxury flats would be a complex architectural challenge as three of the embassy’s nine floors are underground. For this reason, a hotel or office development, or perhaps a mixed scheme including residential, may emerge as favourite.
Demands for on-site affordable housing may muddy the water when a deal is being done but Boris Johnson is reviewing the former mayor’s policy of 50 per cent quotas. Westminster City Council, the local planning authority, also wants a more flexible approach.
The area has been moving back to residential since the mid-Nineties, and to date more than 250 office buildings have become homes.
Some property experts question whether the time is right to bring forward such a scheme, arguing that the super-flats bubble has been burst by the credit crunch. But as the embassy move to Nine Elms is to take up to five years, the thinking is that the property market will be very different, and probably very active and upward.
Property deals in the area have ground to a halt, says Peter Wetherell, a resident and Mayfair estate agent, who has sold and resold much of the property in the area and been through its boom-and-bust times before. He says all these financial market woes will prove to be a blip.
Mayfair’s real residential revival started when “temporary” office leases, granted in the post-war period, started coming to an end. Since then, about 250 buildings have reverted back to residential use and the process is continuing. Several grand mansions have been reinstated, while niche developers have created big lateral flats or transformed mews houses into spectacular homes.
New flats in a scheme called The 21st have been built above Cipriani restaurant on Davies Street and coming soon is the biggest residential project for a generation: 39 flats in a mixed-use redevelopment of Park House, opposite Selfridges.
© Matt Writtle
Today, Mayfair is less the hushed enclave of the shy wealthy and more a conspicuously fashionable, even blingy, place. Grosvenor itself has a wider strategy for Mayfair. The estate is keen to acquire buildings that it sold off during the post-war period and cultivate new neighbourhood hubs, such as revitalised Mount Street, with its upmarket fashion boutiques, where retail rents have tripled since 2005.
Another pocket earmarked for improvements is the area around Brown Hart Gardens, by Duke Street. At the moment, this is one of Mayfair’s less salubrious parts, backing on to Oxford Street and with a collection of artisans’ dwellings (Peabody flats). Brown Hart Gardens itself is one of the capital’s secrets, a raised public space built above an electricity sub-station and “fenced” by classical stone pillars and listed domes. This lowest-value part of Mayfair is an area to watch.
Though Mayfair is one of the few places in central London where the super-rich can find a grand town house with servants’ quarters, there are plenty of less-opulent homes including mansion flats and mews cottages, even a few ex-council flats. Prices start at about £500,000 for a small pied-â-terre.
The trend for people working from home will be accelerated by carbon concerns and technology, says Peter Wetherell. “With such a large stock of 20th-century office buildings, Mayfair offers the best redevelopment opportunity in central London,” he says.
History in the making
The Grosvenor estate has owned much of Mayfair since 1677. It started to develop Grosvenor Square and 100 acres of surrounding land in the early 1700s. It soon became the place for aristocrats and rich merchants to live - in magnificent mansions set back 30 feet from the road and with mews for staff and stables.
Only three of the original Georgian mansions on Grosvenor Square remain. Most were redeveloped in the 19th century. In the 20th century, Mayfair’s character began to change. Commerce and shopping took hold and with the onset of the Second World War the aristocracy fled to the country. After the war, redundant and bomb-damaged houses where converted or redeveloped to provide much-needed office space.
© Nigel Howard
About this time, too, the Americans took a serious interest in the area. General Dwight Eisenhower established a military headquarters at 20 Grosvenor Square, opposite the embassy, which later became the offices of the US Navy. This building was recently snapped up by rag trade and restaurant tycoon Richard Caring, who plans to transform it into multi-million-pound apartments.
In the Fifties, the American government took the decision to consolidate into a new embassy, persuading Grosvenor to buy-in leases of individual buildings along one side of the square and sell a new long lease of 999 years to the Americans.
Oil-rich Middle Eastern buyers started to arrive in the Seventies, joining Greek shipping tycoons and other global movers and shakers, displacing home-grown British buyers who were discovering other parts of town such as Belgravia and Knightsbridge - still at least 10 per cent more expensive than Mayfair.