City to face post-Brexit future with public realm and transport improvements

Thursday 20 September 2018

© Agnese Sanvito

The City of London is confident it can remain a world-class attraction for a new, wider mix of businesses whatever Brexit throws at it, bolstered by a major commitment to improving public realm and transport infrastructure across the Square Mile.

That was the key takeaway from the NLA On Location conference held at the offices of Herbert Smith Freehills at Broadgate. 

Chairman of the planning and transportation committee at the City of London Corporation Christopher Hayward said the City was and could remain a global leader, even if there is ‘definitely a spirit of change in the air’ brought about by uncertainty on jobs over Brexit. But it is flexible, adaptable and will change with the times, said Hayward, and will work to cope with a projected growth in the Square Mile’s 450,000 workers to 600,00 by 2026. Part of the methodology of dealing with a big influx from the Elizabeth Line and other factors will be a ‘dynamic, radical and progressive’ transport strategy which Hayward said will emerge in draft form this winter. ‘The new transport strategy will stimulate growth for the next 20 years’, he said.

The Corporation has been ‘delighted’ with the success of the Bank junction scheme but will now be going further with more changes, and will look to improve the northern riverfront too, which Hayward said was a ‘disgrace to the City’ compared to the South Bank. ‘If businesses like what they see and want to be here, the City’s future will be bright’, said Hayward.

British Land chief executive Chris Grigg said that Broadgate represents a good proxy for other things that need to go on in the City and across London. The complex had been seen as ‘fortress Broadgate’ when it was first built but has worked to improve permeability, the developer selling half of the site to take it forward. ‘It instantaneously made it less risky for us to do stuff’, he said. BL reinvested in similar campuses across the capital including Regents Place and Paddington, bringing some of the lessons it learned back to Broadgate, including seizing what it sees as the growing importance of other kinds of occupiers. The City had been dominated by financial, but BL sought to capitalise on Crossrail and transform Broadgate into a ‘world class, seven-days-a-week destination’. It did this by looking at tech occupiers, improving the food and beverage offering – with Eataly one of the latest to sign up –luring West End occupiers by what it was doing to improve the place itself. Across the capital and indeed the globe, said Grigg, there is a ‘polarisation associated with quality’, not just with buildings but in the environment. ‘That Jo or Joanna Ordinary-space is actually really going to struggle’, he said. ‘You’ll see a sucking in of quality to the best locations.’
Hayward agreed: ‘The public realm has become fundamentally important for people making decisions about offices. People want great spaces.’
The City’s core strengths need to be championed for it to thrive, said Dr Laura Davison, head of research at the City of London Economic Research, while Rajdeep Gahir, founder and managing partner of CoCreations, said business disruptors in the age of ‘generation access over ownership’ would be part of this.

The picture from an occupier’s perspective was important, too, with Kathryn Harrison, business partner for CIB at Deutsche Bank detailing the bank’s decision to remain in the City ahead of places like Waterloo, Paddington and Canary Wharf. ‘For us as an occupier, actually doing business in the City became a very straightforward and enjoyable process’. The new generation of employee do not have an aspiration for the traditional working environment, or ‘corner office’ however, Harrison added, and the firm’s workplace at 21 Moorfields has to reflect and support that, and help create a sense of community. ‘The City continues to be a really excellent place for talent and more broadly on a global basis the time zone really helps’. Brexit was one of the dominant things the bank tracked all through its decision making process, but still made the decision to stay, said Harrison.

Other speakers included John Robertson of John Robertson Architects, who showed two key schemes in the City – 33 King William Street for Wells Fargo with its rooftop amenity space and New Bracken House for the FT, complete with a running track on the roof. Foster + Partners partner Kate Murphy, meanwhile said the Bloomberg scheme she designed featured an interior to contrast with its exterior, encouraging its staff to use downstairs retail and the local economy. ‘The shape of the buildings themselves came out of designing the public realm first’, she said, while SOM partner Kent Jackson took the audience through the practice’s 100 Leadenhall Street and how the architect sought to ‘re-establish medieval street patterns’.

Matthew Brown, VP Real Estate for Europe, Israel and Australia at WeWork, meanwhile said everyone Iooking more at how they use their space, responding to their employees – or ‘members’. But competition through other organisations also looking at co-working was a healthy thing, said Brown. ‘We definitely believe in our business model. Other people operating in that space is a good thing because it validates the same belief that we have in the business model.’ And Bloomberg’s head of facilities Catriona Henderson said the City brings the firm the ‘connectivity’ it needs with its clients in the City as well as in Canary Wharf and the West End. The new building also helps to attract talent, said Henderson. ‘Our London employees are certainly proud of what we’ve built, she added.

Finally, in a session on keeping the City connected, Carolyn Dwyer, director of the built environment at the City of London Corporation, said the City’s future competitiveness depended on ‘creating a compelling mix of office space and engaging and stimulating public realm an a really high degree of connectivity’. The City can boast excellent public transport even before the Elizabeth Line opens with its capacity to bring 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of the Square Mile. It also aims to provide ‘world class’ digital connectivity, its 3gb WIFI already installed and with over 100,000 users, and is to be an early adopter of 5g, she added, but this will require the addition of new small cells every 200m. But the Corporation also faces a challenge in managing its ‘overcrowded’ streets as it builds on the success of transforming the dangerous Bank junction and new public space at Aldgate – again via its new transport strategy. ‘Streets which are safe and attractive places to walk and cycle and spend time are key to the success of any modern city’.

The Ned’s general manager Gareth Banner said he was ‘delighted’ with the new traffic calming measures at Bank, which have undoubtedly helped with the success of the hotel, restaurants, spa and bars complex. ‘Ultimately, the nicer the environment, the more appealing the City will become’, he said. The Ned had brought a large-scale venue with a breadth of choice that works for a real cross-section, whose biggest challenge, said Banner, is sometimes getting people to go home. Brookfield Properties’ Carlin Fier said that in its partnership with Oxford Properties on the London Wall Place scheme they had been successful at similarly changing what was a very disused part of the City and opening it up, with activation of a cultural programme to come. There was a balance to be struck, however, with residential sites near to those cultural buildings where noise – in the form of music from the London Symphony Orchestra’s lunchtime rehearsals even – were an issue. Gerald Kaye, chief executive of Helical, added that he hoped that the £8m public realm element of the developer’s Bart’s Square scheme would also prove an attractive proposition, knitting the 19 separate buildings together and opening up the site. ‘It’s a great new addition to the City’, he said.

Finally, Jane Wentworth of Jane Wentworth Associates, who is working on the City’s ‘Cultural Mile’ project, said it was all about animating spaces between existing world class cultural buildings, and joining them up. ‘If you feel emotionally engaged, and you feel wanted and welcomed, there is going to be a nice vibe, you’re not going to be frightened: you’re going to feel that there are other people around. That, to me, is what we should be aiming for.’

View images from the event here.

By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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