The last blank canvas

The “New South Bank”, the “missing piece of London” and “London’s third city” (after Westminster and London’s Square Mile) are just a few of the marketing phrases coined by developers to describe the area of London that stretches along the south side of the River Thames between Battersea Park and Lambeth Bridge.

But while the computer-generated images and architect models of the so-called Nine Elms Opportunity Area, located just south of Nine Elms Lane, present a green and glitzy residential area, it is somewhat difficult to marry this image with the reality that is still a looming wasteland. Full of industrial warehouses and overlooked by the derelict Battersea Power Station, developers’ diggers are getting busy in the mud.

The vision conceived by the 26 separate developers involved in this huge regeneration plan across 481 acres is nothing if not ambitious. At the heart of the project will be the US embassy, which last month confirmed its plans to relocate from its base in Mayfair, central London. Then there will be a range of developments spread across the site, encompassing about 16,000 residential homes (including about 3000-4000 “affordable” homes), and the Linear Park, a new green landscaped area running through the middle.

The district has been hailed “a catalyst for economic growth and regeneration” by Boris Johnson, mayor of London, who last month took part in “breaking ground” – the initial dig at the St James’s Riverlight development, the first project to get under way at the site.

“Nine Elms is a major regeneration project that represents the final piece of the jigsaw that completes the central area of London,” says Johnson.

Sitting between Vauxhall in the east and Battersea in the west, Nine Elms is the last part of the development of the South Bank of the River Thames that begins at London Bridge and extends west to destinations such as the Oxo Tower restaurant, the Royal Festival Hall, the London Eye, MI5’s headquarters and on to Battersea Power Station. Total investment in this area is expected to amount to an eye-watering £10bn.

The St James development, Riverlight, will occupy the prime riverfront location and has been created by architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. All 806 apartments across six buildings will have private terraces and 75 per cent of this particular development will be made up of open space with landscaped gardens, a park and a riverside walkway.

At the heart of it all is Embassy Gardens, from the Ballymore Group, adjacent to the US embassy, which will see the creation of nearly 2,000 new homes, landscaped gardens, a riverfront walk threading between Embassy Gardens to Battersea Park, a boutique hotel and bars and restaurants.

Sir Terry Farrell, architect for Embassy Gardens, says Nine Elms represents the last opportunity to create a new area in London from a “totally blank canvas ... his is quite possibly the last time the capital will see the creation of such a completely new district, built where none existed before,” he says.

Embassy Gardens is strongly influenced by the architectural style of New York’s Meatpacking District – constructed of brick rather than glass and steel. It will comprise one and two-bedroom apartments and three-bedroom penthouses rising to 19 storeys. There will be a 24-hour concierge service and private residents’ club, which will include a hydrotherapy spa plus an indoor/outdoor pool and cinema.

The world presented in the prospectuses for these projects is enticing but the question is, who will buy these properties? Developers and estate agents say hundreds of properties have already been sold, many off-plan, to international buyers.

“As well as interest from local buyers, appetite for this area is evident in cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur,” says Sean Ellis, chairman of St James’s Riverlight. “Investors are drawn to the UK by the favourable currency play, the perceived safe-haven status of central London property and the UK’s open tax regime, education system and culture.”

He says one of the draws of the area is that you can buy apartments for less than their equivalent north of the river. “Buyers who have been priced out of local areas are recognising the investment opportunity,” he says.

Other developments will include One Nine Elms, the twin towers designed by architects Kohn Pedersen Fox – one of which will become western Europe’s tallest residential tower – and Battersea Power Station, which has stood vacant for 30 years but has now been bought by the Malaysian consortium of SP Setia, Sime Darby and the Employees Provident Fund, who intend to include 3,800 homes on its site. Vauxhall Square is a proposed development of two 50-storey towers and 410 private homes, while the New Covent Garden market will redevelop the existing flower and food market and add new homes, shops and offices.

If successful, they could revolutionise the area and push up local property values. Knight Frank predicts sale prices in the surrounding area of Battersea and Vauxhall could rise by 140 per cent, to £2,250 per sq ft by 2016.

“At the moment this is an area people drive through to get somewhere but with the right amenities and attractions it could become an area that people will want to go to,” says Tom Crabtree, sales manager at the Clapham office at Marsh & Parsons.

Key to the success of the Battersea end of the regeneration, says Stephan Miles-Brown, head of development at Knight Frank, is the extension westwards of the Northern Line from Kennington. This will be a £1bn-plus project supported by developers, the government and City Hall. Two stations are planned, and could be in operation within the next few years; one serving the US embassy and the New Covent Garden Market and another at the power station.

There are other risks for potential buyers. Many of the projects are months, if not years, away from breaking ground and in today’s difficult economic climate it could be tough getting financing for such ambitious plans. Some in the industry highlight the fact that there will be a lot of upheaval for early residents, who will be living on site from 2016 – the entire development is expected to take at least 12 years.

But overall the feeling is positive. “The recent thumbs-up for the Northern Line extension and the enormous financial commitment made by Battersea Power Station’s new Malaysian owners will have stifled the cries of the doomsters,” says Dominic Grace, London head of residential development at Savills.

Lucy Warwick-Ching is the FT’s online Money editor

Route manoeuvres

Nine Elms Lane – the main road that passes through the Nine Elms development site – has a reputation as one of London’s most feared cycle routes. But plans are under way to create a safer and far more extensive cycling terrain as part of the regeneration project, writes David Firn

“A new network of cycle paths and walking routes will be created that will be almost entirely shielded from traffic,” says Ravi Govindia, council leader and co-chair of the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership. “This will include a brand new stretch of the Thames riverside path and a linear park running continuously from Battersea Power Station to Vauxhall Cross.”

A mile of London’s waterfront will be opened up to cyclists and pedestrians, which will connect to Battersea Park, and cycling and pedestrian routes will be created under the railway arches that dissect the district.

There are also plans (yet to be approved) to build a bridge from near the site of the new US embassy over the Thames to Pimlico, bypassing Vauxhall Bridge and providing an easy link to Westminster and Victoria. “A foot and bike bridge would be a real help,” says Danny Williams, a publisher who cycles to work in the City and author of the Cyclists in the City blog. “Cycling over Vauxhall Bridge is extremely intimidating and the north of the river feels really inaccessible as a result.” The findings of a feasibility study for the bridge are expected later this year.

Lambeth council, meanwhile, is looking at re-engineering the roads at Vauxhall Cross, the busy junction and transport hub at the north end of the Nine Elms development, making it safer and more attractive for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate too.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.