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London estates lack lofty ambition

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28th Jul 11 12:28 pm

Out of the five controlling central London, only one is prepared to reach for the sky with its future building plans

Heron tower

The Heron Tower

Now that the Shard is halfway finished and Heron Tower in Bishopsgate has just been completed, there’s been a lot of chatter about what’s next. Will London’s centre be teeming with skyscrapers?

Well, I interviewed the heads of the five London estates recently. These are the grand property companies which control the centre of London.

  • The Howard de Walden Estate owns 90 acres of the West End, including Marylebone Street and Harley Street.
  • Grosvenor is based on the portfolio of the Duke of Westminster, and includes Regent Street, Oxford Street, Mayfair and Belgravia. His holdings are so extensive he is the richest man in Britain.
  • Cadogan (pronouned K’duggan) is the estate formed on the holdings of the antiquarian Sir Hans Sloane – after whom Sloane Street and Sloane Square are named. The estate holds 93 acres of Chelsea, a sizeable asset if you consider the cost of a single apartment in that area.
  • Great Portland Estates is based on the Duke of Portland’s holdings. Today it is a stock market-listed REIT (real-estate investment trust) valued at £1.5bn, with properties from the East End to the centre of London.
  • Derwent London is also stock market listed. It’s the Johnny-come-lately of the bunch, founded in 1913. Value: £2.5bn.

I asked whether any of these estates had plans to build skyscrapers. Would we see London’s skyline rivalling Singapore or the Big Apple anytime soon?

The answer? No. Not on their territory, anyway.

Toby Shannon, chief executive of the Howard de Walden Estate, said the Shard was “absolutely marvellous” and in the perfect place, but he had neither the inclination nor the planning consent to build anything remotely similar in central London.

John Burns, chief executive of Derwent London, emphatically ruled it out. “Don’t want to,” he said gruffly.

And the idea of skyscrapers going up in Chelsea or Mayfair is a non-starter. The planning officers would be aghast, and the estates don’t want to change the character of their wonderfully cash-generative assets.

Only Great Portland Estates has plans to build skyscrapers, starting with the 63-storey, 945-foot Pinnacle at 100 Bishopsgate.

The other four estates are hugely influential. See a man with a hod carrier anywhere between SW1 and EC4 and the chances are they are in the employ of these estates. They are piling money into London right now, investing as hard as they have ever done.

But not into skyscrapers.

The Centrepoint tower is likely to remain the tallest building in the centre of London. From Fulham to St Paul’s, the landscape will remain almost exclusively at five storeys.

We will see skyscrapers south of the Thames, in the City, the East End, Stratford and further West along the line of Crossrail. And Moorgate and Bank will be at the vanguard of this race to the sky.

Work is under way on the Walkie Talkie at 30 Fenchurch Street and the Cheesegrater at 122 Leadenhall Street, both right beside the Gherkin.

But the retail heartland of Oxford Street, Marylebone and Soho will remain as they are.

Many Londoners, architectural historians and, frankly, anyone who is a fan of the village-style composition of this unique city, will be greatly relieved.

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