Thursday, 2 March 2017

Centre Point: Another Marmite tower for London

Artistic impression of a refurbished Centre Point. Courtesy: © Rick Mather Architects

By Paul Coleman

Some Londoners love Centre Point. 
Others loathe it. That makes Centre Point another of London’s ‘Marmite’ skyscrapers.*
Property tycoon Harry Hyams’ honeycombed block stands sentinel and slightly convex over Tottenham Court Road tube and Crossrail station. Completed way back in 1966, (the last time an England team won the football World Cup), Hyams’ 34-storey edifice stands as a looming monument to a 20th century gluttony for speculative office space. 
But Centre Point is being refurbished, with 82 new luxury apartments for global investors but only 13 ‘affordable’ flats for local people. Prices vary from a 'modest' £3 million for a three-bedroom apartment to £55m for a five-bedroom suite with grand views over London.
Will Centre Point become a monument to a 21st century global gluttony for speculative investment in London’s uber high-priced real estate market?

Trophy asset
Yes, more than likely, says the Khaleej Times. In January 2017, the Dubai-based English newspaper and website advises its Gulf investor readership: 'If you are looking to own a postcode in central London, a buying opportunity has just cropped have a chance to own a slice of British history since Centre Point is a Grade 2 listed building.' 
The Khaleej Times cites Victoria Garrett as the in-depth font of Centre Point sales knowledge. Garrett is a partner and head of a team at Knight Frank - the global property investment agency - that sells 'investment and trophy assets to High Net Worth and Ultra High Net Worth Individual clients within the Middle East'. 
'We had a private afternoon high tea for a group of ladies in Dubai who are interested in buying in the UK, to give them an overview of this development (Centre Point),' says Garrett, who has 13 years of experience of matching HNW and UHNWI clients with investment and trophy properties.

Missed opportunity 
To be an UHNWI, you'll need at least $30m in investable assets. So, by definition, Garrett's HNW and UHNWI target market is tiny - compared, of course, to all the people who need a home. But the HNW and UHNWI pie makes up for in cash what it likes in numbers. Globally, over 212,600 Ultra High Net Worth Individuals hold a combined $30 trillion in net assets, according to a World Ultra Wealth Report by Wealth-X. They control 12% of global wealth, despite making up just 0.004% of the world's adult population. 
Centre Point apartments aren't likely to be unsold for long. 
But questions remain. The adjacent on-site block of just 13 ‘affordable homes’ aimed at local people means Centre Point represents a missed opportunity. Surely, Centre Point could have made a more significant contribution to resolving the chronic shortage of genuinely affordable housing suffered by working people in London?

Located in the borough of Camden, designed by Richard Seifert and protected as a designated Grade II listed building, Centre Point sits close to some of central London’s most desirable neighbourhoods - Bloomsbury, Covent Garden, Fitzrovia and Soho. Centre Point’s fresh controversy over its lack of affordable homes connects strongly with its past. In the 1970s, despite its pre-cast concrete Brutalist architectural merits, Centre Point's vast office floors fail to attract a singular one-off tenant. Hyams refuses to let it piecemeal to multiple occupiers. 
Squatters and students then take it over in 1974, protesting at the lack of decent housing in central London. Later, a homeless charity even adopts the moniker Centrepoint and bases itself at the foot of the block. Business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry, makes Centre Point its HQ for 30 years before moving closer to the City of London’s financial district.

Hence, more empty than occupied during its fifty year history, Centre Point was always going to be a prime target for a developer to come along and subject the complex to an OTRC – a property market acronym for an Office To Residential Conversion.
Sure enough, Almacantar acquires Centre Point in 2011. The central London property specialist’s OTRC makes the complex a prime target for speculative global HNW and UHNWI investors; people looking to stash their cash in the most profitable niches of the world’s real estate market. Of course, Almacantar present their scheme publicly as a major benefit to Londoners. ‘The project will breathe new life into this landmark, giving it a sustainable and exciting future for the benefit of all Londoners and visitors to the capital,’ says Kathrin Hersel, Almacantar’s development director.  

Centre Point will challenge other uber­ expensive London schemes on grounds of controversial exclusivity; even though it stands outside London’s so-called ‘prime central platinum triangle’ of Knightsbridge, Belgravia and Mayfair.
London’s real estate industry will herald Centre Point as right up there with the likes of the Candy Brothers’ One Hyde Park, a development overlooking Hyde Park and Knightsbridge, where one apartment sold for £140m in 2014.
Instead, Centre Point is better compared with the Shell Centre, another OTRC, on the South Bank. The former London HQ of the global oil company, Shell, is being converted into 877 new homes. Prices start at a heated £540,000. 

Almacantar engaged Rick Mather Architects to renew Centre Point’s components; the 117-metre high tower and a glazed bridge link to a low-rise block with shops and apartments. Conran and Partners reconfigures the complex’s bland office interiors to incorporate 82 new luxury apartments (16 x one bedroom, 37 x two-bedroom, 26 x three bed, two x four bed and a five-bedroom duplex. The complex also features a 30-metre pool, a spa, club and 41,780 square feet of restaurants and shops.
There’s only one deletion. Crossrail’s station construction at Tottenham Court Road removes a pond and fountain that gushed at the foot of the tower’s western frontage. Crossrail - London’s new east-west rail service (due to start in 2018) - gives Almacantar confidence the scheme will be a financial success. Crossrail links Centre Point at Tottenham Court Road to Heathrow Airport in just 30 minutes. ‘Centre Point is now the focus of Crossrail which will trigger an explosion in visitor numbers to this part of the West End,’ chirps Hersel. 
Garrett also chips in, pointing out that Centre Point and Tottenham Court Road will be the only point across London where Crossrail will meet with Crossrail 2, a proposed north-south London rail link. 

Hence, Londoners on average and lower incomes will still use Centre Point as a landmark. They will be able to float through Centre Point but will not be able to call it home. Almacantar says its refurbishment adds a ‘public piazza’ with shops, restaurants and ‘open air space’. However, all too often, ‘public’ and ‘open’ in 21st century London means public access and activity is regulated and restricted by patrolling private security guards.
The security industry loves London’s real estate boom – whether residential, retail or office. Expect to see a lot of security and surveillance as you munch a pizza on the piazza.

Centre Point and its OTRC ilk also create opportunities for other contractors. For instance, the conversion needs a lot of bathroom suites and ceramics.
In 2016, C.P. Hart Contracts secures a deal to install bathrooms in the 82 apartments and penthouses. Established by Charles Percival Hart in 1937, the company creates high quality traditional and contemporary bathrooms.
The London-based bathroom company says Dornbracht digital showers, vanity units and sanitaryware will adorn Centre Point’s apartments.
Bathrooms will also feature Bette freestanding baths and Duravit WCs. 

Dark and empty 
But how many apartment owners will enjoy their state-of-the-art showers?
How many Duravits will be flushed?
Middle East and Far Eastern UHNWIs are expected to snap up the vast majority of Centre Point’s apartments. Very few will actually take up residence.
So, just like London’s other new high profile residential towers, such as One Hyde Park and the St George Wharf Tower at Vauxhall, many apartments inside Centre Point could be sold but remain unoccupied.  
Centre Point then becomes a towering safe deposit box of trophy assets.
An OTRC full of HWN and UHNWI cash seeking a yield. 
A jungle of acronyms but not an anachronism..yet.
A central London monument to 21st century globalised inequality.
Like a vast, dark and empty vessel of Marmite.

*Marmite: a sticky, dark brown and salty food paste, made from yeast - the by-product of brewed beer - producing a taste that polarises opinion.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, 2017

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