Covent Garden, home to the Royal Opera House, has long been a London hotspot for culture, fashion, food and the arts. This heady mix lures overseas buyers as well as those working in the legal and financial industry who like to live or have a pied-à-terre near the City.
No surprise then that developers are targeting the area. In 2006, Capital & Counties (Capco) announced plans for a new-look Covent Garden when it paid £420m for Covent Garden Estate – a mix of residential and commercial stock covering 450,000 sq ft. Further investment since has meant that the area now owned by Capco encompasses nearly twice the square footage of the original purchase and is worth something approaching £1bn.
Bev Churchill, Capco’s brand director, is “curating the mix” of new brands opening in the Inigo Jones-designed piazza at the centre of Covent Garden and in its surrounding streets. Recent additions include Chanel, quirky American boutique Opening Ceremony, and Balthazar, restaurateur Richard Caring’s new venture.
Above the retail units, Capco has also acquired a large number of flats. Churchill says: “If we can get that right mix of shops and restaurants at ground level, we have huge opportunities to turn the top of the buildings into beautiful prime residential stock.”
In a sense, it’s taking Covent Garden back to what it once was. In the 1600s, the well-heeled lived in handsome properties lining the piazza. Then the Great Fire of London struck, wiping out most of the capital’s markets. Covent Garden became the new hub for fruit and vegetables, and the well-heeled took flight to Mayfair. Though popular, Covent Garden has never been perceived as such a desirable place to live.
One new development has set the benchmark for prices. Since coming on the market in April 2012, the Henrietta has set a new price record with its four lateral apartments selling for £4m-£6.25m. That’s more than £2,600 per sq ft (previously, the area’s average price was around £1,900).
Unlike most sales in prime central London, all the buyers at the Henrietta are British. “One lady just loves being near the opera. Others live in Belgravia estate squares and wanted something that was a bit more fun and in the thick of it,” says Jamie Gunning, head of residential at EA Shaw, an agency that has been selling property in Covent Garden since 1899.
The Henrietta’s interior designer is Nicola Fontanella, whose company Argent worked on the apartments. Now Argent is transforming the Russell, formerly tired old offices in a period building just across the piazza, into four flats that are due to go on the market in March at prices higher than the Henrietta. Then comes the Beecham, on the site of a former Lloyds Bank and Pizza Hut, with seven units due for completion in early 2013.
Developing properties that will be lived in or at least used regularly is key to Capco’s plan. “It’s about creating a community. It’s a neighbourhood and people get very attached to it when they live here,” says Churchill.
For those in search of period charm, Savills is selling a three-bedroom apartment in a Georgian building on Monmouth Street for £3.9m.
New-build opportunities near the market square are predictably scarce but one exception is the Bedford, a new block of six apartments on an old garage site a minute’s walk from the piazza. Marketed through EA Shaw, prices range from £925,000 for a one-bedroom unit to £1.95m for the two-bedroom duplex penthouse.
Though developments like this might appeal to opera lovers or those who just want to be in the middle of things, do they suit family living? Perry Bousfield, director of Prime Portfolio, says: “It’s very convenient for theatres and restaurants but it lacks easy access to schools and parks. That’s what accounts for the differential in prices between Covent Garden and more traditional residential areas such as South Kensington or Knightsbridge.”
Maybe that’s one way in which Covent Garden can’t compete. But there aren’t many on the list.
● Property prices in Covent Garden rose 28 per cent in 2012, according to estate agency EA Shaw
● International buyers accounted for 67 per cent of all sales in Covent Garden in 2012
● In 2011, £2m-plus sales accounted for 6 per cent of the total. In the second quarter of last year, they accounted for 21 per cent
● A third of all buyers in 2012 worked in the legal and financial sectors
● In 2012, the average sales price broke the £1m barrier for the first time at £1,033,331
What you can buy for …
£500,000 A small studio flat two minutes’ walk from the piazza
£1m A two-bedroom flat in a newly-refurbished Victorian block
£5m A large three-storey, three-bedroom flat in a Georgian building