The opening of a showpiece university campus at King's Cross for renowned Central St Martins College of Art and Design marks a symbolic turning point in the regeneration of a staggering 67 acres of the once-blighted industrial land behind the train station - an area that only a few years ago was a no-go zone, infamous for kerb crawlers and crack addicts.
'The new district will have 2,000 new homes, 20 new streets, 10 public squares and 20 heritage buildings'
Of all the components in the rennaissance of this once-neglected area, the conversion of a Victorian granary into a jaw-dropping 21st-century "warehouse of ideas" for 5,000 students and staff, is a game-changer. The campus has just scooped a planning excellence prize in a city where design is a highly competitive business.
Set at the heart of this new district-in-the-making - 2,000 new homes, 20 new streets, 10 new public squares, 20 restored heritage buildings and structures, 3.6 millionsq ft of offices and 500,000sq ft of retail space - the campus marks a decisive cultural shift in the capital, bringing diversity, vitality and creativity to a part of London that even the most optimistic of regeneration fans could not have predicted.
"People like me feel a bit out of place here alongside funky fashion students with rainbow-coloured hair and long skirts - and that's just the men," says Robert Evans, the sober-suited director of developer Argent, speaking from the splendidly refurbished German Gymnasium, built in 1864 as a sports facility for railway workers and now operations centre for the King's Cross Central project.
No longer behind closed doors
After several years hidden behind hoardings while groundwork was completed, the site is now open to the public. Several key stages will be reached this year, including the completion of the first residential blocks.
King's Boulevard, the first of the new streets, cuts through the site and is animated by a flow of pedestrians and a food market, while newly created Granary Square, made accessible via a new bridge across previously hidden Regent's Canal, is a lively hub, earmarked as a performance and exhibition space for events such as Frieze art fair and London Fashion Week.
Coming this spring is a new rail station concourse to accompany new entrances and ticket offices, followed by the re-opening of the Great Northern Hotel, which dates from 1854.
'As many as 30,000 people will eventually work at King's Cross Central and 6,000 will live there'
Significantly too, Camden council is relocating its main offices to the site. Because of its transport credentials (six Tube lines plus national and international rail connections) and proximity to the West End, King's Cross Central was always envisaged as a genuinely mixed-use district - a place to live, work and play.
More than £2 billion has been invested in adding to the transport infrastructure alone. King's Cross is joined at the hip with St Pancras, rejuvenated by the magnificent Eurostar terminal, while the area's residential draw has been catapulted to a new level of luxury with conversion of the splendid Midland Grand Hotel into apartments by boutique developer Manhattan Loft Corporation.
As many as 30,000 people will eventually work at King's Cross Central and 6,000 will live there. BNP Paribas is the first big commercial occupier to sign up. Business travellers can leave London after breakfast, attend a meeting in the French capital, lunch at a Champs Élysées restaurant, take a stroll along the Seine and arrive back at St Pancras before the end of the working day. Many of these employees will want a home on the doorstep of their workplace.
A former engineering yard next to King's Cross station has become Regent Quarter, a smart enclave of homes, design studios and small business premises in cobbled courtyards.
At Battlebridge Basin, canalside warehouses have been turned into trendy lofts and workspaces for creatives, while big media companies such as Guardian Newspapers, publisher Macmillan and advertising agency Wolf Olins have set up in the area. King's Place, on York Way, which runs alongside the station, is a new 430-seat concert venue with art galleries and waterside restaurants.
Development ripples are spreading out towards Barnsbury, Angel and Bloomsbury, established neighbourhoods certain to get a major boost.
King's Cross Central's 2,000 homes are spread across 13 residential buildings, with about 40 per cent of the apartments designated "affordable", a mix of rented and shared ownership. Argent is developing the site alone, rather than parcelling up land and selling off plots to housebuilders, meaning there is a coherent plan, with all the public realm infrastructure in place before construction commences.
The aim is to deliver high-quality architecture on a big site with a relatively low number of homes. Many of the on-site students will live in a landmark tower ready next year. The first private homes (114 in total) for sale are in Arthouse, which has a façade of terracotta tiles, polished stainless steel and sliding louvre screens. Values are hitting £1,000 a sq ft, according to estate agent Knight Frank, which is selling two-bedroom duplexes with a large terrace from £1.45 million (020 7861 5499).
Launching next is Canal Reach - townhouses and apartments in a block crowned with a sky garden. Coming later are eagerly awaited apartments built within the iconic Victorian gas holder frames. These listed cast-iron structures have been dismantled and put in safe storage pending the start of construction.
Now that the site has been opened up, the legacy of Victorian architecture and engineering feats is there for all to see, and is enhanced by the new modern design that fuses with the heritage buildings. The listed Coal Drops, once used for transferring coal from trains to road carts, are being restored for use as shops, galleries, bars and restaurants.
West Handyside Canopy, built in 1888 as a covered area for the unloading of fish and other perishable commodities, is a new events space. The Midland Goods Shed, built in 1850, will be adapted for office use.
"To talk about the residential element in isolation is meaningless," says Argent's Robert Evans. "The quality of accommodation is not just about world-class architecture but also about the place the buildings are part of. Here we have the great advantage of a site with a prized history. The changes are organic, not forced, and all the uses are integrated.
"It would be trite to brand the development as a new 'cultural quarter' or 'business district' - and it would also kill it stone dead." Visit www.kingscrosscentral.com.
Pictures by Graham Hussey