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In a long-forgotten corner of Chelsea, the Cinderella of British industrial architecture is at last getting ready for the ball.
Her big sisters — Bankside and Battersea power stations — have already been swung around the dance floor by property developers seeking a glamorous transformation. Bankside, now known as Tate Modern, is one of London’s premier tourist destinations, while Battersea is evolving from a roofless hulk into a new urban centre, replete with shops, offices and homes.
Lots Road power station, meanwhile, has languished empty and silent since closing 13 years ago, after a century spent generating electricity to power London’s Tube network. Built in 1904, it is older than both Battersea and Bankside, which were built in 1933 and 1952 respectively.
Although much less famous today than its two better-known siblings — its river frontage has been out of bounds to the public for more than a century — Lots Road was a 20th-century architectural star. As well as featuring in several vintage London Transport posters the coal-fired power station also played a role in the development of the British radio industry, when its towers were festooned with broadcasters’ aerials.
Shortly before it was decommissioned in 2002, the site was snapped up by Hong Kong-based conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, but it bided its time before getting work under way.
The global financial crisis delayed Hutchison’s plans but they have now been revived. The developer plans to build 706 homes on the eight-acre site — now renamed Chelsea Waterfront and designed by starchitect Sir Terry Farrell — including two towers of 25 and 37 storeys. Unusually, Farrell has had a hand in every aspect of the designs, right down to the door handles.
The power station itself will be converted into apartments, with a mix of shops, restaurants and bars on the ground floor. Its two remaining chimneys will be preserved.
The recent Conservative party election victory spurred the developer on in its plans, says Edmond Ho, executive director of Hutchison Whampoa Property. “We have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” he says. “We had a little nervousness about the election, but the result gives everybody more confidence.”
The first phase of homes will go on sale in the next few weeks, and the developers aim to finish work in 2019.
Lots Road is not the only place to feel the effect of the unexpectedly decisive vote. The election result has proved a boost across London’s high-end housing market, say estate agents. What some called a “relief rally” saw international buyers returning to the market within hours of the result being known.
The Chelsea market had been particularly badly affected by recent tax reforms and the prospect of a new tax on high-value homes being introduced if the opposition Labour party had come to power. The proportion of homes sold in Chelsea worth more than £2m dropped from almost half last year to just a third so far this year, according to figures from data provider Lonres analysed by researchers Dataloft.
Chelsea has also seen steeper recent price falls than other parts of prime London. Yet over the past decade it has outperformed: prices per sq ft are 162 per cent higher than they were 10 years ago, compared to the London average of 126 per cent, Lonres and Dataloft found.
And now activity is starting to pick up once more, estate agents say. Ed Lewis, head of London residential development sales at Savills, says there has been “a significant uplift in the number of new inquiries received post-election”.
Ed Mead, a director of Douglas & Gordon estate agents, cautions that some buyers are holding back to see whether chancellor George Osborne will announce further property tax measures in his annual Budget in July. “After an initial post-election rush it’s actually been rather quiet,” he says. “There will be a bounceback but it will take a while for it to filter through [into prices].”
Fears are rising that this bounceback could be offset in some parts of London by overdevelopment — thousands of highly priced homes are being built in some areas. Yet estate agents say this is not a problem for Chelsea, which has a very limited amount of development land available.
The Lots Road site is the largest scheme being built in the Chelsea postcodes SW10 and SW3.
Further north, the Earls Court mega-site, where 7,000 homes are planned, spreads across Fulham and West Kensington. Meanwhile, Chelsea Barracks, being developed by Qatari Diar at the other end of the Kings Road, is technically in Belgravia.
That site shares similarities with Lots Road, however: it too has a vivid sense of history and has seen a long hiatus in activity, but is now blossoming into life.
Construction began earlier this year and is planned to complete in 2018.
The barracks hit the headlines in 2009 when a dispute broke out between the Prince of Wales and its owners over the architectural design. The developer went back to the drawing board after a high-profile outcry; the Prince called the scheme “a gigantic experiment with the very soul of our capital city”.
The redesigned scheme, which won planning permission last year, aims to blend in with Chelsea’s traditional streetscape of garden squares. In contrast, Chelsea Waterfront is going tall.
Some architectural critics have grown weary of the forest of towers now rising across London’s skyline, but Max Farrell, a partner at Sir Terry’s firm — and his son — promises that Chelsea Waterfront’s “dancing pair” of “pencil towers” will not be obtrusive. They are certainly slender by global high-rise standards: some upper floors will have just one apartment with 360-degree views.
Farrell also emphasises that the development will be socially mixed: 39 per cent of the homes will be priced at below market rates. Of these, 46 per cent will be on rents of up to £400 a week for a four-bedroom flat. The remaining 54 per cent will be for sale or part-sale to households with incomes of up to £42,000 for a one-bedroom flat and incomes up to £70,000 a year for three bedrooms.
It is “important not just to be another development for investors and young people [who rent]”, says Farrell. Some apartments will have up to five bedrooms in a bid to attract families.
The site, which straddles Chelsea Creek, will include three new pedestrian bridges, a water garden and a new 600-metre section of Thames-side footpath.
The Chelsea Waterfront scheme is “one of the last river spots left for development”, says Ed Mead, which gives it a particular appeal to prospective buyers.
Edmond Ho says he is “quite confident” about London’s housing market. “We are unique as a development and we are at the right spot on the river.”
There have “only been a few smaller developments” in Chelsea proper, says Ed Lewis, citing Cheyne Terrace, Chelsea Galleries and Henry Moore Court as examples. As a result, he says, buyer demand is likely to be strong.
Today, Chelsea’s southern waterfront has a sizeable amount of social housing and a bustling riverboat community. Yet for potential buyers its lack of transport connections was for a long time a downside. That all changed in 2009 when a new train station, Imperial Wharf, opened just to the south of Chelsea Harbour. Ed Mead said it had been “a big game changer in terms of people wanting to live around there”.
The history of the site is an additional lure, according to Farrell. “Historic buildings like power stations have an immense attraction to foreign buyers who love London’s history and aesthetics,” he says.
The southern end of Chelsea has historically been its bohemian heart. Lots Road itself is well known for its antique auctions. The artist JMW Turner spent his later years living on Cheyne Walk, a couple of minutes’ stroll away, while James Whistler painted some of his most famous works a few doors further along.
As the face of Lots Road transforms from industry to community, the developers face a challenge to preserve that sense of history while drawing in the bustle and buzz of Chelsea.
Kate Allen is the FT’s property correspondent
Photographs: Charles Hewitt/Getty Images; TfL