To celebrate the birth of my son 19 years ago, my husband gave me a painting of Battersea Power Station. At the time, the building was a London icon, but it was also a London tragedy, a redundant white elephant with no purpose and, seemingly, no future. This year, that has finally changed.
In January, the first phase of the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station went on sale to a stampede of buyers, and the rebirth of this phoenix as a deluxe “mixed-use” complex adjoining the Thames looks likely to light up an entire swath of south London.
Battersea, in the Borough of Wandsworth, first caught developers’ eyes in the 19th century, when cheap land on the “wrong side of the river” was snapped up to provide suburban housing for a rapidly increasing middle class. Heavy bombing during the second world war left a scarred landscape, largely rebuilt with stark industrial buildings and council housing. Now, in what Boris Johnson has described as “possibly the most important regeneration story in the UK over the next 20 years”, it is to be reinvented yet again.
But reinvented as what and for whom? Those resident in the compact network of gentrified Victorian and Edwardian property that fringes Battersea Park have long argued their case as “South Chelsea” – and in the past few years this pleasant quarter, a 10-minute stroll to the King’s Road, has been playing catch-up with its neighbour across the water.
Here, the river is already fronted with stylish contemporary apartments by some of the country’s leading architects: two by Norman Foster (Riverside and Albion Riverside) and another (Montevetro) by Richard Rogers. A few steps inland, adjoining the 200 acres of Battersea Park, are sought-after period mansion blocks, town houses and terraces.
“In the past few years international money has poured into Chelsea leaving a shortage of stock and forcing buyers to look further afield,” says Mark Hutton, associate director of Battersea agents Douglas & Gordon. “They’ve found they get much better value for their money here.”
Certainly, prices achieved recently would indicate that some housing is already creeping up to Sloane Square values – Douglas & Gordon, for example, recently sold a large period house overlooking the park for a record £4.5m.
The Victorian redbrick stretch of Prince of Wales Mansions has seen a matching climb. “We sold a flat there in summer 2009 for £950,000,” says Hutton. “The very same property fetched £1.6m in February this year.” Those looking for something similar could consider a three-bedroom top-floor flat in York Mansions, at £1.495m (with Douglas & Gordon).
As in Chelsea, period family houses are in short supply, but those who prefer their home in this traditional format might be interested in a substantial six-bedroom Victorian house in Parkgate Road (£2.95m, through Savills). Alternatively, trans-river migrants seeking up-to-the-minute lateral living could also look at Parkgate House, a converted Victorian bakery due for completion this summer, which will offer six spacious family-size apartments, complete with porter, parking and every modern convenience (from 1,500sq ft, priced at £1,200 per sq ft, through Banda).
The drama in Battersea, however, is a play in three acts, and the western frontier is only the prologue. For many Londoners, the Power Station is undoubtedly the star turn. Designed in the early 1930s by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (also author of the Tate Modern building and the red telephone box), this magnificent art-deco “superstation” was intended to anchor power provision for the capital. Conceived as a cathedral of the Machine Age, it was ornamented in the grand manner, with bronze doors, parquet flooring and marble-clad walls. Now Grade II listed, the station shut down in 1982. Destruction was unthinkable, but no one except film crews and rock musicians (The King’s Speech was shot here, as was Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover) could envisage or underwrite an appropriate alternative future.
After a number of abortive attempts at reinvention, in 2012 it was announced that SP Setia (Malaysia’s leading property developer) and Sime Darby (Malaysia’s leading multinational conglomerate) had finally secured its financial future, and last December, the British-based Battersea Power Station Development Company obtained planning permission to commence an £8bn project. Over the next 10 years, this will create 3,400 apartments and a new “town centre” on the 39-acre site.
The first phase, Circus West, which snakes along the western edge of the Power Station, went on sale in January. Of the 800 units (with studios starting at £335,000), 600 were reserved within the first week. Redevelopment of the Turbine Hall (including some enviable penthouses with vast roof terraces overlooking the Thames) will begin at the end of 2013.
“Buyers, in both the UK and abroad, clearly appreciate that we will be providing a thriving new community,” says Rob Tincknell, CEO of Battersea Power Station Development Company.
The finale of this property blockbuster is “Nine Elms on the South Bank”, the stretch along the river from the Power Station to Vauxhall Bridge. Although not officially “Battersea” (the postcode here is SW8, rather than SW11), this triangular-shaped tundra, bounded by the Thames, a railway line and Nine Elms Lane, is a vital part of the plot.
In 2008, the American Embassy acquired a site here from developers Ballymore, and its new embassy, planned to open in 2017, has undoubtedly inspired confidence. The bold cuboid castle surrounded by its own moat has contributed to the argument that this will become a new “embassy quarter” (particularly as the Dutch have also bought land nearby).
Ballymore has already incorporated the concept in its branding and Embassy Gardens (two‑bedroom flat, from £599,000) – scheduled to complete in 2015 – is one of two deluxe developments currently on sale. “The first phase of Embassy Gardens, which launched last year, has been a runaway success,” says Savills head of residential development Dominic Grace, who is responsible for UK sales. “All 540 units have now sold out – over half to UK buyers.”
Just up the road, Riverlight (by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners), a collection of one- to three-bedroom flats and penthouses in eight glittering blocks, has also found few problems finding purchasers looking for river views.
The combined redevelopment of Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station is perhaps unrivalled since the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, but successfully transforming large urban wasteland into vibrant, architecturally pleasing communities, has not always been the city’s forte. There are still question marks over how well the area will work.
The initial marketing has been heavily targeted at buyers in Asia. According to Stephan Miles‑Brown, head of residential development at international estate agents Knight Frank, “Asian purchasers buy in London for three principal reasons: capital growth potential, their kids’ education or pure rental investment. We’ve become the bolthole of the world.”
“Bolthole” purchasers, however, are not generally considered the most involved members of the urban mix, and this is a concern to those advising London-based buyers. “One danger is that these properties become merely a bank vault and don’t get lived in,” says Charlie Ellingworth, a founder of Property Vision, the UK’s leading search agents. “There’s a vast amount of housing here. Who’s going to rent it? Young people can’t afford it, and are families really going to choose two- and three-bedroom apartments? The area has to have another dimension – become a place not just to live, but to play.”
The urbanist Sir Peter Hall, Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration and president of the Town and Country Planning Association, feels that the new development at Battersea has a number of incontrovertible assets. It fulfils his first principle of successful urban regeneration: “location, location, location, especially transport location”. The undoubted triumph of the latest phase in Battersea’s history is the planned extension to the Underground’s Northern Line, which, by 2020, should add Battersea and Nine Elms to Harry Beck’s famous map and link the area to the West End and the City.
“One reason Battersea Power Station went nowhere for so long, even though it’s two miles from Westminster, was that public transport was appalling,” says Sir Edward Lister, deputy mayor and formerly long-time leader of Wandsworth Council. “You need density to make an area viable and, in the end, the only way you could move the numbers was by having a pukka metro line.” Thanks to lobbying by the Greater London Authority, the government has guaranteed a £1bn loan for the new line, which will be paid back through local business rates and contributions from the developers.
Hall’s second fundamental principle is “perceived smartness”. The new-built property here will be five-star and glossy, with every amenity demanded by the globally affluent. But shiny buildings are not the same thing as urban cool and no stretch south of the river has yet pulled off the sophisticated, high-end blend of the King’s Road or Notting Hill.
Certainly, “place making” and “community” feature large in the sales language. The master plan at Embassy Gardens (designed by Sir Terry Farrell) includes offices, restaurants, a hotel and shops, while at Battersea Power Station the “High Street” (masterminded by Uruguayan Renaissance man Rafael Viñoly) will provide art galleries, a boutique theatre, a cinema and business studios. The developments will also be united by a linear riverside park – a “curated space” with numerous “public events” – and those responsible for it hope it will match the unifying energy of High Line, a park created on an elevated disused railway line running through Manhattan. A footbridge, a sister to the Millennium Bridge, has also been mooted to facilitate safe passage across the river for cyclists and pedestrians.
The current leader of Wandsworth Council, Ravi Govindia, who has been closely involved with the planning, is upbeat about the transformation. “It was never a promising area. Now it will feel like a part of central London and should provide not just jobs and homes, but a boost to aspiration.”
The street cred of Battersea Power Station-Nine Elms may still be a matter of speculation, but it’s already very much a reality in the established pocket between Battersea and Albert Bridge, which has rapidly taken on the mantel of Chelsea in the days before the influx of global capital transformed it from bohemian to luxe.
In 2012, the Royal College of Art opened the Dyson Building, by architects Haworth Tompkins, as a centrepiece of its new Battersea Campus, and this injection of high-wattage design talent will join the headquarters of Vivienne Westwood, Victoria Beckham, Foster + Partners and Will Alsop – further underlying the location’s claim as “Creative Battersea”.
“It’s become almost a mini Shoreditch,” says 29-year‑old entrepreneur Charlie Gilkes, generally considered a barometer of upmarket urban edge. Gilkes, with his business partner Duncan Stirling, is founder of the Inception Group, a chain of nightclubs, bars and restaurants in Chelsea, Mayfair, Soho and Fulham frequented by the younger royals and the Made in Chelsea set. Two years ago, the pair launched Bunga Bunga, an “Englishman’s Italian Bar, Pizzeria and Karaoke” on Battersea Bridge Road.
“Someone said at the time, ‘Surely no one will cross the river?’ But they missed the point. It’s people already living here whom we appeal to.” Locals are committed enough to book six weeks in advance for their tarantella band and Julius Cheeser pizza. Gilkes and Stirling are now bidding on two sites in Embassy Gardens. “We see it as a great opportunity. We’re looking at Battersea long term.”
Others, however, have argued that a truly potent metropolitan cocktail cannot be achieved in a pristine new environment of “people sitting in cafés drinking cappuccinos and reading newspapers”. Kieran Long, senior curator of architecture at the V&A and architecture critic for the London Evening Standard, feels developers here have yet to guarantee the necessary grit in this urban oyster. “You have to have a high street that includes a supermarket and a pub, even if you have to subsidise the pub.”
It may not be what he’s thinking about, but the existing sewage works and waste dump will remain in this new radiant hub, as will the area’s other historic celebrity, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.
This month a river walkway (and from early summer, two show apartments) will open at the Power Station, and anyone willing to stroll down from Tate Modern or over Albert Bridge, will be able to decide for themselves whether they share Tincknell’s view that Battersea will ultimately become London’s Left Bank.