Wonder wharf

It’s anything but business as usual in Canary Wharf, as the financial hub entices new residential buyers with increasingly impressive properties and a burgeoning cultural buzz. Lisa Freedman finds a beguiling work-life balance – and competitive prices – among the riverside high-rises

Rendering of a two-bedroom apartment at Ballymore’s Providence Tower, from £500,000
Rendering of a two-bedroom apartment at Ballymore’s Providence Tower, from £500,000

Where do you think this man lives? “I love it here. It’s so quiet and safe. I go jogging by the water, there’s great shopping and restaurants, and it takes less than half an hour to get to work.”

The love-to-live-here quality is, of course, one of the main factors affecting any decision to buy, but this media executive isn’t a resident of an obvious happiness hotspot such as Zurich, Toronto or Copenhagen. In fact, he owns a flat in Canary Wharf, a part of London that many Londoners still perceive as “not London at all”, merely a place where bankers sleep at night.

This, however, is a rapidly changing perspective, and both local and overseas buyers are becoming increasingly aware of the area’s manifold attractions – attractions that will undoubtedly grow stronger with the arrival in 2018 of faster-than-a-comet Crossrail, which will deliver residents to Heathrow in under 40 minutes. “Crossrail will be a game changer,” says Grainne Gilmore, head of UK residential research at international estate agent Knight Frank. “Over the next five years, we predict prices in ‘prime outer London’ rising by 25 per cent, but at Canary Wharf, within a 1km radius of the Crossrail station, we believe that figure will be 32 per cent.”

Canary Wharf, with the Wood Wharf site in the foreground
Canary Wharf, with the Wood Wharf site in the foreground

Canary Wharf is both one of London’s oldest commercial districts and one of its newest. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, it sat at the heart of Docklands, among the world’s largest ports, but the departure of the last container ship in 1980 left a forlorn wasteland with no obvious future. Not, however, for long. Soon after, the London Docklands Development Corporation kick-started its renaissance, and by 1991 the flashing beacon of One Canada Square, then the UK’s tallest building, indicated the arrival of a thrusting new business quarter.

At the outset, this reinvention was handicapped by poor transport, but the opening of the Limehouse Link (the most expensive stretch of road per mile ever built in the UK) and the Docklands Light Railway was the crucial first step in knitting the Isle of Dogs into the fabric of the metropolis. The addition of the Jubilee Line in 1999 meant Bond Street and the South Bank were now serious lunchtime and evening options.

Today, Canary Wharf has become the City’s all-grown-up younger sister and, as hoped, a refuge for a panoply of leading banks and law firms. Increasingly, too, it has become home to a global blend of affluent young urbanites, mostly aged 25-40, many undoubtedly employed in financial services.

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However, Canary Wharf Group, which has run the 97-acre estate for the past two decades, is now planning to alter both the commercial mix and the work-life balance, tilting the property seesaw firmly in favour of home buyers, particularly in the case of Wood Wharf, an area to the east of One Canada Square currently at the masterplan stage.

“We started out with the view that Wood Wharf would be around one-third residential, two-thirds commercial,” says John Garwood, group company secretary. “Now we’ve inverted the equation.” An inversion that will contribute towards the doubling of Canary Wharf’s population from 100,000 to 200,000. This expanded demographic is also significantly less likely to wear a tie to work. “Along with Greenwich and King’s Cross, we’re going to become part of Tech City,” says Garwood.

The nature of the residential property offering is also in transition and, though functional modernism for busy worker bees continues to predominate, high-end luxury with all the expected frills is increasingly part of the mix. The Canary Wharf estate has long enjoyed the services of celebrated architects (Cesar Pelli and Foster + Partners, among others, have played a part in this high-rise heaven), but now big‑name designers such as Riba-gold-medallist Herzog & de Meuron (author of the Tate Modern conversion) and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill are being brought in for the benefit of homeowners.

Two-bedroom duplex apartment at No 1 West India Quay, available through Chesterton Humberts for £1,499,950
Two-bedroom duplex apartment at No 1 West India Quay, available through Chesterton Humberts for £1,499,950

With its tower-like apartments and harbour views, Canary Wharf can seem to visitors like a little bit of Singapore or Seoul on English soil. “High-spec buildings such as Pan Peninsula are definitely reminiscent of East Asia,” says Andrew Groocock, head of sales at Knight Frank in Canary Wharf, “and we’re now seeing many more Russian and Middle Eastern buyers, as well as continued interest from Asia.” Certainly, contemporary buildings such as Ballymore’s Providence Tower, which is due for completion in late 2015/early 2016, have all the extras that busy international buyers expect, including a private residents’ club, business centre and boxing ring, in addition to the more standard pool and sauna. (One-bedroom apartments from £423,000; two bedrooms from £500,000.)

Wherever they come from, today’s buyers perceive the area as good value, especially when compared to most of the city’s riverside homes. “There’s nowhere else in London where you can still get a two-bedroom flat with views of the Thames for £550,000,” says Groocock.

As well as Pan Peninsula and Providence Tower, there are already a number of further “premier-league” developments on the Isle of Dogs (Canary Riverside, No 1 West India Quay, Port East Apartments, Landmark East and West, and Discovery Dock East and West), and additional skyscraper living (Riverside South and Heron Quays West) has already passed the planning hurdle. The appetite for what’s currently on offer is keen. “Since the beginning of 2013,” says Cory Askew, area director of Chesterton Humberts, “there’s been a buying frenzy, with sealed bids and gazumping for good riverside locations within a 10-minute halo of Canary Wharf.”

A rendering of Providence Tower, due for completion in late 2015/early 2016
A rendering of Providence Tower, due for completion in late 2015/early 2016

The majority of properties range in size from sought-after studios (with high rental yields) to practical two-bedroom apartments. There is, however, also a growing offering of the spectacular and expansive, such as the 21st- and 22nd-floor duplex apartment at No 1 West India Quay, which features floor-to-ceiling windows and a sweeping glass staircase (£1,499,950, through Chesterton Humberts), or the deluxe four-bedroom penthouse at Pan Peninsula (£4.5m, through Knight Frank).

And, while straight lines and stainless steel continue to dominate in this landscape of tomorrow, those looking for a heritage flavour can still find it in converted warehouses, such as the Grade I-listed Port East Apartments and the four-flat building at Limehouse Wharf, where Knight Frank is currently marketing a renovated three-bedroom apartment for £1.55m.

Canary Wharf would not work, however, if it were just an upmarket housing estate, and the area has been steadily transformed from the cultural desert of the early 1990s to a buzzing destination in its own right. Now celebrity chefs (Gordon Ramsay in Limehouse, Tom Aikens at Westferry Circus), a network of designer shops (from Tiffany & Co and Bang & Olufsen to the largest Waitrose in the country) and an effervescent programme of art and leisure events (a farmers’ market, big-screen music and sports, a jazz festival) all contribute to the area’s determined drive for “placemaking”.

Limehouse Wharf on Narrow Street, where Knight Frank is marketing a three-bedroom apartment for £1.55m
Limehouse Wharf on Narrow Street, where Knight Frank is marketing a three-bedroom apartment for £1.55m

Developer Robert Soning, whose conventional clientele are sophisticated, central-London media types, has been monitoring this transition carefully, and his company, Londonewcastle, felt that now was the right time to work on a forthcoming residential project in the vicinity, the 31-storey Dollar Bay, due for completion in 2016/17. “We’ve been watching Canary Wharf for the past 15 years and noted that it had lagged behind the rest of London. With the success of the office occupancy and premium new developments, we felt it had to catch up. Dollar Bay will have everything for the stylish urbanite – from open-plan living with water views to a club room, valet parking and gym.”

Norwegian-born Thomas Aastad, special projects manager at design magazine Wallpaper, definitely falls into Soning’s target market. Aastad has lived in Canary Wharf since 2003 and bought his first flat here three years ago. “I moved from west London because I couldn’t believe you could find such a nice place to live for the money. At first, I was virtually the only one travelling away from Canary Wharf in the morning – but that’s definitely no longer the case.”

Aastad still sees himself as a bit of a pioneer. “My friends often say it doesn’t feel like London, but what is London? Every area is different. For me, Canary Wharf is an integral part of the city.”

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