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September 6, 2013 7:26 pm
Regent’s Canal, which passes through eight-and-half miles of central London, from Paddington in the west to Limehouse in the east, is a relic from an altogether different city.
“Today people see the leafy canal and the properties that overlook it as very desirable,” says Alex Werner, head of history collections at the Museum of London. “But when it was built at the beginning of the 19th century, much of Regent’s Canal skirted around the edges of what was then a chiefly industrial city, past the factories and the huge dust heaps piled up around the back of King’s Cross [railway station].”
Regent’s Canal was built between 1812 and 1820 to better supply London with freight and fuel from the north of the country, and to export goods, via the Limehouse Docks on the river Thames, to the rest of the world.
In the mid-19th century the canal reached its heyday, allowing for the daily transportation of tens of thousands of tons of cargo to pass through London on hundreds of laden canal boats. “Though some residential areas near the canal were always intended to be high-class,” says Werner, “around the basins and the factories that were built in the east it could be a very dirty, noisy and dangerous place to be.”
Even the rarefied properties built near Regent’s Park were not immune to risk. In 1874, a barge loaded with gunpowder exploded as it passed under Macclesfield Bridge near the park’s north gate. The blast killed the crew and completely destroyed the bridge and a nearby house. Reports from the time describe how glass was blown from window frames up to a mile away.
Today, with much of the canal’s industrial past behind it, areas nearby are attracting a new breed of property developer keen to capitalise on the waterside potential.
“There has always been a premium in London for living by water,” says Knight Frank’s Nick Parr, “but with the price of homes overlooking the Thames now out of reach for many purchasers, London’s canals are providing a more reasonable alternative.”
Regent’s Canal is particularly sought after, he explains, because the majority of its banks to the east are classified as “brownfield sites”, which are former industrial or derelict spaces not protected like “greenfield” or heritage land, and therefore ripe for redevelopment.
So, just as the canal was instrumental in changing the face of London when it was built at the end of the industrial revolution, it is now set to alter the city again 200 years later.
The largest site under construction on the banks of Regent’s Canal is the 67-acre development around King’s Cross, which it is estimated will have cost £2bn-2.5bn by the time it is completed in 2020. The development will feature 20 new streets, 10 public spaces, 2,000* homes – a mix of market-value and “affordable” housing – and will be the setting for countless businesses. These include the 11-storey, £650m Google UK headquarters, which, at 330 metres, will be longer than the Shard is tall on its completion in 2017.
“When it’s completed this will be the largest city-centre development in Europe,” says Robert Evans, from King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership, the site developers.
The first couple of phases of the King’s Cross construction are already complete: the Granary Square development, which houses the new Central Saint Martins College building, was finished in 2011; as have various new offices and a hotel.
The first residential building, the canal-side ArtHouse, is set to be finished on December 13. ArtHouse has 143 units, ranging from studios to four-bedroom apartments, with all but three penthouses already sold. The remaining penthouses are on sale through Knight Frank and are marketed at £1.65m.
Another area of Regent’s Canal undergoing rapid redevelopment is around the City Road and Wenlock basins, in east London, near the Old Street roundabout, aka Silicon Roundabout. Once a rundown area on the fringe of the City of London – and still rather shabby-looking – Old Street has become synonymous in recent years with its booming cluster of tech start-ups.
Perhaps aware that the area does not quite live up to its “Tech City” moniker, the government pledged £50m last December to spruce it up, with the first phase of redevelopment set to begin within six months. Renovation of the area is long overdue, since the rest of the Old Street area is already in redevelopment mode. Locally, there are 14 commercial and 12 residential developments either at the planning stage or under construction, with several being built on the banks of Regent’s Canal.
One development keen to play up its canal-side credentials is the aptly-named Canaletto, designed by UNStudio and featuring a distinctive 34-storey undulating façade.
“The local area was a great source of inspiration, in particular the proximity to the water,” says the building’s principal architect Ben van Berkel. “We wanted to reprise the ripples and reflections and use fluid forms for the exterior.”
When the Canaletto apartments go on sale on October 12, its 190 units – available through both Jones Lang LaSalle and Knight Frank – will range in price from £475,000 for studios to £660,000 for one-bedroom units and £790,000 for two-bedroom units, with prices for three-bedroom properties and the penthouse yet to be decided. Canaletto is scheduled to be completed in the third quarter of 2015.
In Camden, on the west side of King’s Cross, is Regent Canalside, a development by Taylor Wimpey. Managing director Ingrid Skinner describes the canal as one of the main reasons the company chose the plot for its scheme.
“The canal creates a sense of calm and tranquillity for our residents to enjoy,” she says, “while the towpath provides a fantastic opportunity to travel on foot, or cycle, to Camden Lock, Camden Market, Primrose Hill, Regent’s Park and King’s Cross.”
More than half of the 52 apartments have already been sold, including all the one-bedroom units. Prices vary for two and three-bedrooms properties but the cheapest is a smaller three-bedroom unit on sale for £799,999 with Chesterton Humberts.
So why has it taken 200 years for Regent’s Canal to become desirable again? “Like much of the canal system, the coming of the railways in the 1850s and 1860s sparked the slow demise of Regent’s Canal,” says Alex Werner. That decline was hastened by the rapid deindustrialisation of London in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving much of the canal derelict and dangerous. Werner cites the formation of the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1981 as a turning point in the canal’s regeneration.
“Up until then, zoning [the strict regulation of areas to remain either residential or industrial in use] had made parts around the east end of the canal desolate no-go areas,” he says. “But after the LDDC acquired controls to regenerate the closed docks, this freed up a lot of old warehouse buildings to be converted into sought-after waterside accommodation.”
The most famous – and most photographed – section of Regent’s Canal is the part that has changed the least, a quaint area of Paddington called Little Venice. For years the area has been an upmarket enclave, marking the spot where Regent’s Canal and the Grand Union Canal meet.
Today it is characterised by large stucco-fronted period homes and brightly coloured live-on canal barges. Although acquisitions here are few and far between, estate agents Ian Green is marketing a six-bedroom, early-Victorian house for £6.95m on Blomfield Road, right by the water.
*This figure has been amended from the original article. The King’s Cross development will create 2,000 new homes, not 20,000.
The reality of canal life
Although it might seem frugal and romantic to chug down a leaf-fringed alley of central London leaving worldly cares and council tax bills behind, life on a narrowboat might not be the idyll it first appears.
“Living on a narrowboat can be a great lifestyle but it comes with its challenges,” says Sally Ash, head of boating business at the Canal and River Trust, which maintains Regent’s Canal and many other UK waterways. First, you need a licence, which costs £750 a year on average, depending on boat length. Then you can either buy a permanent mooring – “which in London are like hen’s teeth,” says Ash, and on Regent’s Canal can cost £10,000 a year – or you can opt to “continually cruise”, where the boat cannot stay in the same place for more than 14 days. You need to be respectful of your neighbours too, says Ash, by not playing loud music and turning off generators at night.
Increased congestion on Regent’s Canal has caused tensions to rise recently between boaters and locals, with some stretches near Islington being double or even triple-moored, according to residents.
London Assembly member Jenny Jones, herself a Regent’s Canal boat owner, is leading an investigation into the dispute. “The redevelopment along the canal is clearing out a lot of old mooring sites – sites that might have been there for decades,” she says. “That’s why the dispute has come to a head.”
Meanwhile, Jones is convinced only a tiny minority of “liveaboarders” are acting in an antisocial way – and “they annoy fellow boaters just as much as flat owners,” she says.
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