Midtown: on the rise, key opportunities in the heart of the capital

Monday 15 December 2014

© inmidtown

Midtown is preparing for a step-change in its popularity that will arrive with Crossrail. But it is already becoming a richer and more varied place for tenants – measured by an influx of new creative occupiers and a new ‘beardwatch’ index.

Those were some of the key points raised in a special NLA conference on Midtown  sponsored by inmidtown and Crossrail – the ‘collection of villages with distinct characteristics’ between the City and West End that includes Bloomsbury, Holborn and St Giles.

The beardwatch feature – a measure of the type of young hipsters who have populated areas such as Shoreditch – is the brainchild of Julian Hind, partner, head of leasing, sales and development at Farebrother. ‘In Midtown we are fundamentally a refurbishment market’, he said, with low availability rates across areas such as WC2, EC1, EC4. But new tenants are moving into the Midtown area such as Skype, Webber Shandwick, Publicis and Saatchi and Saatchi, attracted by new retail, green space, restaurants and bars, world class education facilities, plus the improved public realm and greater accessibility that Crossrail will bring. ‘It is getting quite beardy’, said Hind.

Sir Terry Farrell said that the seven villages that make up Midtown form a ‘very definite area’, but, like many other parts of London, are facing pressure from a growing population. ‘In the last five years London’s population has grown by 500,000 – equivalent to an Edinburgh’, he said. ‘In the next 10 years it will grow by a million – a Birmingham.’ Crossrail will make a huge difference to Midtown and an enormous difference to London, Farrell added. But Midtown needed to dissolve its east-west barriers, define and promote quality routes to key places such as the British Museum, provide a clear and complete pedestrian network, and get rid of the area’s many one way systems.

One of these – Gower Street – will be made two-way for all vehicles, said Alex Williams, director of borough planning at Transport for London, with Tottenham Court Road two-way for buses and cyclists in a project that should be complete by 2018. ‘These projects will build on the success of the area’, said Williams, ‘but you cannot deliver this scale of change without disruption. There will be a bit of pain but I do think the final product is worth it.’ DSDHA partner Deborah Saunt added that her practice was looking at the consequence of the ‘surge’ in people and aiming to ease the ‘palpable fear’ people have of being ‘swamped’ and hoped to avoid creating ‘highly polished spaces that are all quite similar’.

Crossrail’s head of land and property Ian Lindsay said that Crossrail is the first rail project to design stations and over-site improvements as an integrated and complementary package, and indeed will be the catalyst for some £130m of urban realm improvements which will make a ‘very major contribution to Midtown. And with each train able to carry some 1500 passengers, there will be 24 trains an hour from December 2018, with the journey from Farringdon to Canary Wharf dropping to eight minutes and Tottenham Court Road to Heathrow in less than 30. In the City, meanwhile, assistant director (environmental enhancement) said one of its big efforts was in trying to get people from Crossrail to the cultural quarter, including the Barbican, and looking to get back to two-way working at the gyratory end of Holborn.

The conference also heard from James Rowbotham, development manager at Land Securities, who said occupiers from the legal, financial and corporate sectors were ‘drifting over from the City’, while the arrival of firms like Amazon and the ‘game-changer’ of Saatchi showed how traditional West End occupiers were now looking at Midtown, partly because of price but also because of its different offer. ‘It can’t take its eye off the ball or price itself out of the market’, he warned. Julian Robinson, head of estates at the London School of Economics said critical mass had informed Midtown becoming a good place, along with its place ‘close to the centre of things’, while Camden Councils’ Julian Shapiro said that development of the Royal Mail’s sorting office could really transform a dingy and unloved part of Oxford Street. Inmidtown’s chief executive Tass Mavrogordato showed the impact BIDs like hers have had on the area, to the extent of introducing cycle vaults for bike parking under Bloomsbury Square, carbon calculators to monitor air pollution, even working to provide volunteering on schemes such as bee keeping and producing eggs from locally kept chickens. One of the beneficiaries of this last project is Midtown proponent Mishcon de Reya…or Meg Hen the layer, as the firm’s partner Susan Freeman put it. 

-       David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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The increase in capital values and rents in the mid town area over the past five years has led to an increase in development activity which is set to continue for the foreseeable future. The opening of Crossrail stations at Farringdon and Tottenham Court Road in 2018 is already proving a significant driver for investment.