Londoners have embraced café society just like Parisians - but with a difference: in London people want to live where the cafés are. The tempo in a street changes when people start sitting outside, drinking and chatting. This in turn attracts small character shops and businesses to the area.
Landlords have been quick to notice the allure of these streets, where the remorseless march of the chain stores has been resisited.
With the success of Notting Hill and Marylebone High Street, Belgravia and Bloomsbury, Soho and South Kensington, bold moves are now afoot to pedestrianise more streets within the historic heart of London.
City-loving locals used to hate living above shops and in traffic-congested thoroughfares but these smart streetscapes with residential cachet are encouraging central neighbourhoods to burgeon with new community spirit and are tempting butchers, bakers and the like to aim upmarket. And new homes are being built alongside them.
Landed estates, responsible for much of the capital's shape and form, have woken up to the advantages of investing in the built environment. Grosvenor, which owns 300 prized acres in the W1 and SW1 postcodes, has a Places for People strategy. It is targeting Motcomb Street and Mount Street with £10 million of investment, basking in favourable comment about the work it has already done in nearby Elizabeth Street in Belgravia.
"We recognise that the quality of the streets was far behind the quality of the buildings, and that nobody was going to improve them unless we took the initiative," says planning director Nigel Hughes. "Without doubt attractive public space adds value to residential and commercial buildings. There are concentric circles of value around a good street, and the inner rings have greater value."
Mayfair's residential renaissance is part of a new property cycle with its roots in the period after the Second World War. Back then, Grosvenor cleverly anticipated a demand for business space, granting temporary 50-year leases on grand houses vacated during the Blitz. In the Nineties, as these leases expired and Mayfair again became a fashionable place to live, Grosvenor initiated a programme of residential reversions.
About 250 buildings have since gone back to residential use and the process is continuing. Several mansions have been reinstated, modest mews houses transformed and lateral flats created.
Grosvenor has also introduced a niche 20-year residential short lease that falls outside enfranchisement laws but makes the entry price lower for people who want to buy into the area. These homes typically cost £300,000 to £500,000 and Grosvenor offers a "pledge," undertaking to top up the lease to the original 20-year term at any time.
Brand-new apartments have been built above the Cipriani restaurant opposite Claridge's, while a site has been cleared for the area's biggest residential project in decades: 39 flats at the Park House retail development in Oxford Street. Other projects are under way in Grosvenor Crescent, Duke Street and North Audley Street. Before 2006, Mount Street was considered more of a through route from Berkeley Square to Park Lane than a destination in itself. Then fashion label Marc Jacobs opened, followed by Balenciaga, Lanvin and Louboutin, joining the refurbished Connaught Hotel and Scott's restaurant.
Retail rents have tripled over the four years and, against the norm, living over a shop is now highly desirable. A one-bedroom flat above Scott's is for sale at £1.4 million. Call 020 7529 5560. Another pocket earmarked for improvement is the patch around Brown Hart Gardens, one of the capital's secrets: a raised public space enclosed by Italianate stone pillars and domes.
Belgravia has fewer commercial buildings than Mayfair and is seen as a more convivial neighbourhood for families, which explains why it is about 10 per cent dearer. Eaton Square is regarded as the jewel in the crown but the patch between Lowndes Square and Belgrave Square is increasingly fashionable.
Here is Gordon Ramsay's relaunched Petrus restaurant, part of a redevelopment on the corner of Kinnerton Street and Motcomb Street that includes 13 rental apartments. Recobbled Motcombe Street now has a smart retail parade anchored by Waitrose.
Grosvenor sold off its Pimlico acres in the Fifties, resulting in a scruffy borderline where Belgravia meets Victoria coach station. Traffic management, public-realm improvements and judicious selection of retailers have helped turn Ebury Street and Elizabeth Street into new shopping hubs, pushing up residential values in the area, which is set for a big boost with the nearby Chelsea Barracks redevelopment.
Revamp for shopping Mecca
Even Oxford Street, so indelibly linked with push-and-shove shopping, is not beyond redemption, with strenuous efforts being made to turn it into a place to live. New West End Company, a business and property forum backed by Mayor Boris Johnson and Westminster council, has devised a £1.5 billion masterplan that aims to transform the bustling thoroughfare into a clean, tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly boulevard adorned with public art.
The goal is to promote a betterquality retail mix, with offices and homes above street-level shops. New "gateways" are planned for Marble Arch, Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street and Langham Place, and there will be 12 side street "oases" for alfresco dining and boutique shopping.
The tract between Old Brompton Road and Fulham Road is the residential heart of South Kensington. Most of it used to be owned by the Henry Smith Charity, landowners since the 17th century, but in the Nineties the estate was sold to the Wellcome Trust. Since then there have been a number of disposals, allowing local small estate companies to consolidate their property portfolios.
One of these is Brompton Estates, which is focusing on a micro-neighbourhood between Beauchamp Place and Thurloe Place. When Brompton Estates acquired the land six years ago, it was a forlorn, unfashionable strip, strangely at odds with the glamorous shopping experience available at Harrods, a stone's throw away. Today, it is called Brompton Quarter, an upmarket retail destination, specialising in homeware (Smallbone, SieMatic, Skandium, Boffi, B&B Italia). In neighbourhood terms it has filled the gap between swanky Knightsbridge and the ultra-smart cluster of shops and restaurants around the Michelin Building in Fulham Road. Rolling refurbishment is bringing new flats, many above shops, to the market. Visit bromptonquarter.com.
Independent shops in store
Bedford Estate, in Bloomsbury, is turning Store Street, moments from Heal's and Habitat stores, into a shopping street with flats on upper floors.
The landowner has taken control of 14 shops on one side of the street and has a strategy to let them to a wide variety of independent and community retailers. The plan also includes redeveloping a petrol station.
In the manner of Marylebone
In Soho, where ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few freeholders, there is a rough masterplan for a Marylebone-style makeover. Shaftesbury, which has more than 100 bar, club and restaurant premises in Theatreland, has helped create a boutique shopping quarter around newly pedestrianised Kingly Street, which feeds into the Regent Street department stores.
Smart new flats are being squeezed into the area's maze of narrow streets and alleys, including 37 prestige loft apartments, part of a redevelopment of listed Marshall Street Baths.
Call Greater London Properties on 020 7734 4062.