By Peter Whyatt
Derwent London have purchased the huge Central Cross office and retail complex on Tottenham Court Road and Stephen Street in Fitzrovia. The 251,000 square foot freehold site was purchased for £146m. The previous owner Glebe Holdings was forced to sell by lender Lloyds Banking Group PLC.
The news will alarm residents in Fitzrovia many of whom feel the company will ruin the character of an area described as “a little oasis in central London”. Many in Fitzrovia feel the company’s existing plans are a gross over-development in a mixed-use area.
Derwent London will want to redevelop part of the site and add value to their acquisition. The company is not known for its lack of ambition when it comes to increasing the return of any of its sites and told the Wall Street Journal that “the property’s office and retail elements offer significant opportunities for future refurbishment and improvement”.
Although the company specialises in office refurbishment, they are increasingly looking to extend retail and dining establishments in partnership with other businesses in Fitzrovia. The company is backing the creation of a business improvement district (BID) in Fitzrovia — a public-private partnership with Camden Council. Communications giant, British Telecom and City of London are also backing the initiative.
The Derwent London backed Fitzrovia Partnership recently launched a new website FitzroviaPartnership.com which describes their “ambassador service” as well as their other “environmental” initiatives. Sources in Fitzrovia believe that The Fitzrovia Partnership may be undecided as to whether to call a ballot of larger businesses in Fitzrovia in early 2012 with the intention of creating a BID by 1 April 2012.
In fact the words “business”, “improvement” and “district” although scattered throughout their literature and website, never actually appear in succession or in the same sentence. Derwent London’s confidence in itself is not reflected in its “business led initiative”, The Fitzrovia Partnership. Gary Reeves the Partnership’s company secretary and mentor has been reluctant to state what their intentions exactly are. Camden Council have been even more reluctant to comment about the intentions of the Fitzrovia Partnership.
The Fitzrovia Partnership is currently trying to win hearts and minds among sceptical and knowledgeable community groups and small businesses in Fitzrovia. But the nature of Fitzrovia’s mixed-use built environment — there are 8,000 residents, many of whom live above shops, offices and cafes — has called into question the suitability of Fitzrovia to accommodate a business improvement district. Fitzrovia has a steadily increasing residential population and the sense of community identity is strong. Fitzrovia also has a history of resisting commercialisation.
Nearby business improvement districts (BIDs) like the New West End Company are concentrated in streets without a residential community. Oxford Street and Regent Street have few residential buildings, save for a few small flats housing caretakers or the occasional pied-a-terre scattered above some premises.
Likewise InHolborn BID is concentrated around mostly commercial premises, but is surrounded with a significant residential population though less in number than Fitzrovia. InHolborn was laughed at when it announced plans to call Holborn, St Giles and part of Bloomsbury “Midtown”. One source had suggested that the name Midtown would be quietly dropped. However, InHolborn’s website has since proudly boasted the arrival of “The Midtown Rangers: A new team for a new area and era”. Perhaps they’ll be doing mounted patrols. But it certainly shows contempt for local feeling.
Showing contempt is what the News West End Company have been practising. This time their contempt has been aimed at street traders and smaller businesses when they announced (with City of Westminster’s consent) to drive them out of parts of the West End. Market Square at the south end of Great Titchfield Street, also within the New West End Company BID area, is getting a reputation for becoming a public urinal as the result of the expanded capacity of the restaurant and bar premises onto the widened pavement and as a result of promoting the square for evening entertainment.
An ever wary residential population in Fitzrovia has kept an eye on what has been happening in Bloomsbury, Holborn and St Giles, and also parts of the West End. InHolborn BID has been keen to promote itself as an evening entertainment area, attracting more daytime and evening visitors to force more revenue out of the existing properties.
The Fitzrovia Partnership is also seeking to promote Fitzrovia as a “destination” with increased eateries in and around the Charlotte Street area. Its new website also broadcasts an intolerance towards youths, street drinkers, people begging and homeless people. Yet Fitzrovia has very little problem with these vulnerable people. The greater nuisance that the Fitzrovia Partnership is silent about is the nuisance caused by the increase in licensing hours and restaurant activity.
The security patrols in Fitzrovia have been described as “repulsive”, “vigilante” and are seen to raise the fear of crime where none has existed before. Fitzrovia has generally-speaking been a very tolerant place as the recollections of people in the recently published history project attest to. Fitzrovia has not only accommodated change, it has embraced it. This has been the attraction of the neighbourhood. People are keen for this tolerance, and a sense of human dignity, to continue and take exception to others looking for trouble where there is little or no problem.
Derwent London hope to capitalise on the future Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road station which could attract more visitors and commuting office workers into the St Giles area. The announcement of this property purchase also coincides with the two-year countdown to the London 2012 Olympics; another event seen as a boon for tourism and an opportunity to attract yet more visitors into London. This will be to the environmental detriment of London, highly unsustainable, and yet another spin of the wheel in the casino that is the property market.