Conversion boom brings communities back into the city

Empty offices are proving a bonus for buyers seeking an impressive central London home, discovers David Spittles
Apartments at 88 St James's Street
88 St James's Street, opposite St James's Palace, is being converted by Carlyle Group (020 7318 5122)

London leads the way when it comes to the imaginative re-use of older buildings. And as a fresh wave of office buildings are released for housing schemes, architects are relishing this chance to return large parts of commercial London to residential use — often in the very centre of the capital.

More than 1.8 million square feet of unused central London office space is awaiting planning consent for change of use to homes. And an estimated 20 per cent of all offices in the South East commuter belt are lying vacant as the recession continues to bite the business world.

With the urgent demand for more homes, the Government is offering tax breaks to encourage the conversion of empty office space, a measure expected to ease pressure to build homes on green belt land.

Roman House
From £499,950: Roman House is being transformed into 90 apartments (020 7920 9920)

At home in the West End

In Mayfair, at least 250 buildings, some of them listed, have reverted to residential, a move dating from the mid-Nineties when 50-year office leases granted after the Second World War came to an end. Now that conversion trend has accelerated.

“As residential, a building can be worth twice as much — up to £4,000 a square foot,” according to Mayfair estate agent Peter Wetherell.

This is proving a huge incentive for developers to unlock sites that have been in commercial use for decades. Among these is 88 St James’s Street, an elegant landmark listed property next to St James’s Palace, which Carlyle Group is converting into grand apartments. Call Strutt & Parker on 020 7318 5122.

Another project is the former Canadian Pacific Railway Company headquarters (built in 1902), at Trafalgar Square, converted into five luxury apartments. Call 020 7235 4555. Prices start at £5.5 million.

Developer Native Land is turning 30 Old Burlington Street, a prized Mayfair site surrounded by high-end fashion boutiques and art galleries, into large lateral apartments above new ground-floor retail space and restaurants.

Some properties are ripe for conversion into fabulous one-off apartments. A 4,300sq ft Georgian house at 52 Upper Brook Street has a new residential lease and is for sale at £6.25 million. Call 020 7529 5566.

Modern City Living

Over in the City, Roman House, a modernist office block adjacent to the Barbican complex, is being transformed into 90 apartments, with original Portland Stone façade retained. Prices from £499,950. Call Berkeley Homes on 020 7920 9920.

10 Trinity Square
From £3.25 million: 10 Trinity Square, with imposing exterior and interiors (020 7182 2280)

Coming soon is 10 Trinity Square, former headquarters of the Port of London Authority, across the road from the Tower of London. Work is under way to convert the building into a deluxe hotel and 41 apartments, scheduled for completion in 2015. Prices from £3.25 million. Call CBRE on 020 7182 2280.

Living Out of the centre

Bigger conversion candidates are coming too. The Government’s austerity package is triggering yet more property disposals — including barracks, hospitals, ministry buildings and police stations. Former Cane Hill psychiatric hospital, in Croydon, has been bought by Barratt for redevelopment into 650 homes. Gabriella Park Gardens is a redevelopment of listed Normansfield Hospital in Teddington. Large three-bedroom homes (up to 1,485sq ft) have been launched. Prices from £925,000. Call 020 8939 2800.

Community enclaves

“In central and inner London, almost anything that can be converted gets converted, including public lavatories,” says Professor Chris Hamnett, of King’s College London. “If the raw material is there and planning permission can be obtained, conversions are still very profitable. The boom has pushed outwards into east and south London, though many of the best-located buildings have been done.”

As with the loft-living enclaves of Clerkenwell and Shoreditch, former commercial districts can quickly become desirable residential areas, enlivened by independent shops and restaurants owned by people who live and work locally and have a stake in the community.

New apartments at the home of Philip Alexius de László
From £2.45 million: 18 flats are being carved out of the one-time Hampstead home of society painter Philip Alexius de László (020 7317 7960)
Midtown — which takes in Holborn and the former Fleet Street newspaper district, between the West End and City — is one such transforming area. This district has a rich mix of architectural styles and periods — from medieval to modern — which has given its constituent neighbourhoods a distinctive flavour and charm. Traditionally, they have been commercial addresses, where old professions, guilds and trades — from law to journalism to jewellery making — have flourished. But the area has always moved with the times.

Architect Terry Farrell has unveiled a masterplan to turn the area into a vibrant cultural district, with a continuous shopping boulevard, “greened” with trees, from Oxford Street to Cheapside. The arrival of Crossrail in 2017 means the area will be book-ended by major transport hubs at Tottenham Court Road and Farringdon.

The area is tipped as a future hotspot by Jamie Gunning, head of residential investment at West End estate agent EA Shaw. He said: “There’s an unmistakable development drift east towards the City. Even Mayfair-based developers are looking for opportunities. More people are realising just how central and undervalued the area is — close to the river and unusually quiet at weekends. We are genuinely upbeat and predict strong capital growth over the next few years.”

Office buildings in Kingsway have struggled to attract top rents, which is why developers are keen on residential conversions. With intelligent planning, the wide street could easily become a Continental-style boulevard with pavement cafés and designer flats above boutiques and bistros.

Berkeley Group is soon to start work on a scheme of 206 apartments at Aldwych, replacing a Sixties office block with six new buildings around two courtyards. Marylebone, traditionally London’s medical quarter, has shown how a central London area once under a veil can be revitalised by new retail and residential (here under the thoughtful stewardship of estate owner Howard de Walden).

The same is now happening in Bloomsbury, known as a seat of learning, where the Bedford Estate is upgrading Georgian shop fronts and converting upper parts to residential to bring a village-like character to the busy streets.

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