A towering opportunity to regenerate this backwaterChris Blackhurst
RICHARD Barrett is sitting in a Knightsbridge restaurant enthusing about Battersea and in particular the Nine Elms corridor, sweeping past New Covent Garden Market and down to the iconic power station. "It has evolved from a few things happening to becoming the biggest regeneration project in London,'" he says. "It is three times the size of Stratford and four times the size of Canary Wharf.
"If you were a Martian flying over London and looking within the boundary of the GLA area you would look at Chelsea, Knightsbridge and the other expensive sites. And at Battersea - and you'd never guess which is the one that isn't developed. That Battersea is -undeveloped runs contrary to all the tenets of urban generation. It's less than two miles from Parliament and directly opposite Chelsea."
Barrett has cause to make an argument for Battersea. Together with his business partner, Johnny Ronan, he owns Treasury Holdings, the company that wants to redevelop the power station. Treasury has come up with a £4.5 billion scheme to restore the Grade II* listed industrial landmark. He also knows about ambitious grand building projects.
Established in Dublin in 1989 by school-friends Ronan and Barrett, Treasury has become the biggest commercial property builder in Ireland. They have swept everything before them as they have rebuilt large swathes of the Dublin docks and Irish capital.
They have expanded overseas, to Russia and China, where Treasury has become the largest foreign developer in that vast country. Along the way, the duo, it almost goes without saying, have made themselves fabulously wealthy. Treasury now controls more than 120 individual real estate projects with a combined value in excess of €4.8 billion. The gross development value of all its schemes is €20 billion. Ronan and Barrett have also become feared throughout the property world. In Ireland, they are treated as business royalty - the bearded ex-accountant Ronan, who has a penchant for black (his clothes are usually black, as is his car), and the dapper former barrister Barrett. Part of their reputation is built on their aggression and fierce will to succeed, plus their refusal to talk to the press - Ronan never gives interviews, while Barrett also prefers to stay out of the public eye.
Now they are set to be extremely well-known in London. This is a first for them in several ways. Despite their success, they have never taken on anything as high profile as Battersea. Neither have they been involved with a proposal that is so fraught with controversy. Indeed, it is perhaps a measure of the unfamiliar, delicately poised minefield they now find themselves negotiating that Barrett has agreed to break his habit and to talk to the press.
In 2007, they bought the Battersea site for £400 million from developers the Hwang family. Six months ago, they unveiled their idea. At its heart was a 984ft glass tower designed by renowned Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly.
The structure was shaped like a giant chimney or funnel - a tower with a giant skirt at its base. Air would be sucked in at the bottom and, as it heated up, rise through the building. This "ecodome" would enclose 2.5 million square feet of office space but, thanks to the natural air-conditioning, the energy bills would be cut by up to two-thirds.
After a consultation exercise involving 15,000 people - "the largest ever seen in the UK for a project of this sort," says Barrett - and taking in the views of the heritage lobby, they have lopped 164ft off the original height, cut its diameter from 104ft to 82ft and moved it 100 yards away from the power station. The amount of office space has also been reduced - by half, down to 1.25 million square feet. The power station would be a retail and hotel complex. But under the revised plan, they have added a performance arena, ballroom, primary school and medical centre.
Will it be enough? They've seen the Mayor, Boris Johnson, and his planning team, led by the deputy mayor, Sir Simon Milton. They are hopeful of winning approval but the outcome is far from definite.
The problem is that their chimney, even in its trimmed state, is still visible from the bridges around Westminster and according to the London management policy drawn up by the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone, no building should be allowed to encroach upon the view west of the Houses of Parliament.
While Barrett makes a passionate plea for the "green" credentials of the skyscraper, and while there is no doubting the breathtaking statement in Vinoly's vision, the rules are clear. Treasury has to hope that Johnson ignores them and gives the go-ahead.
There are added complications. Rob Tincknell, the Treasury executive in charge of Battersea, says that if the tower does not get permission, they will have to review their entire scheme. In other words, the restoration of the crumbling power station with its famous corner chimneys is under threat. From looking as though it was finally going to be saved by its new Irish owners, the future of the giant edifice - big enough to swallow St Paul's - could once again be uncertain.
Not only that. As part of the scheme, Treasury wants to add a privately-funded, £400 million 1.75-mile Tube extension and station. If that is scrapped, the plan for the whole Nine Elms area, which includes the relocated US embassy from Grosvenor Square, could be thrown into disarray.
"If the tower is thrown out, we will have go back to the drawing board," says Tincknell. "That will be very disappointing. We believe the new-look tower is in accordance with policy and the new management framework. But if it's not supported we will have to reconsider our plans."
The thought of "doing Battersea without a landmark is not on," says Tincknell. "Our tower is more than a tower. It's a signpost about regeneration, part of the green story. Building it would send a large signal, it would be a large symbol of our green agenda as a city. We would be saying to the world: this is the most extraordinary piece of green urban design created anywhere in the world."
The tower is needed, says Tincknell, to raise demand, to bring in tenants, to increase rents and to make the power station regeneration economically possible.
"There are so many additional costs to doing something like Battersea. There's the building itself but there's also the heritage investment. Before long we will be in to hundreds of millions of pounds. If we're relying on current Battersea rents, this project would not be viable."
Currently, office rents in Battersea are around £27.50 per square foot and for space in the new tower Treasury would be looking to charge "significantly in excess" of that. "We can do that," says Tincknell, "by creating an attractive environment, one we make easily accessible by transport."
Treasury's frustration is obvious. The framework policy actually includes, says Tincknell, a provision saying that buildings can be allowed in the background of river views. And Battersea is not alone. "The Shard of Glass will loom above the Tower of London. Permission was granted because it was felt the Shard added to the view."
Adds Tincknell: "Our tower will be more than one-and-a-half miles away. Most days of the year you can't even see that far and when there is a clear day you will see the most exceptional piece of green urban design created anywhere in the world, so that's a good thing."
He says ominously: "If we freeze this, London will be saying it's in a time warp. It all comes down to one point. Do the powers that be understand the tower is a significant part of the economic viability of the project? On one side is a green project, a new Tube and the restoration of Battersea Power Station.
"On the other is the preservation of a view and the impact on that view may not be negative but may be seen by some people as negative. It all comes down to that one issue." Barrett insists financing is not a problem. Battersea will not be built until the recession has long gone. Although he adds: "If we get Armageddon, then nothing will work."
He doesn't dispute that £4.5 billion is a huge sum of money, even in good times. "But we will do it in phases. We will recycle capital from one stage to the next. We will let one stage, then move on."
Nine Elms, he maintains, "will be the most exciting real estate proposition in London. It will be mixed use - not just flats like Chelsea Barracks [the development across the Thames]".
Yes, it's true that financial services is taking a battering and demand from there for office space will reduce "but our natural tenants aren't from there. Ours is someone who wants to be close to the centre, who is in Zone 1 on the Tube and is attracted by the new Tube but wants a different form of office space. It could be someone like a Shell or a BP that is directly concerned about the environment, or one of the quirky companies like Google or Apple or a new retailer".
Already, claims Barrett, "eight of the top 50 companies" are looking at Battersea. "We've done a lot of deals over a long period. You get a pretty good idea of what they want - and what they're moving from and where they're moving. We try to cooperate and partner with them, which gives us a better long-term view."
Barrett has spent much of his time in China. He admires its people's get up and go. "Their word for crisis is comprised of two characters. The first means 'danger'. The second means 'opportunity'."
He is not redeveloping Battersea because he needs the money. Far from it. "I find it interesting to do a very large site, to solve a puzzle, to come up with a solution that has evaded everybody else and to try to make somewhere a better place than it was."
Listen, he says: "I can waste my time and do nothing or I can try to create something that will make everybody go 'wow'.
"Our plan for Battersea has that 'wow' factor. Londoners will be proud of it. It's their city and they'll be proud of it. It's the first time an eco-building on that scale will have been built in a capital city.
"A country like Denmark has a reputation for being green and the US is big on renewable energy projects but this is London with a true first. It's about new technology, engineers, architects, consultants all forming a cluster in London. There may be less financial services but we can make London the capital of sustainability."
Ah yes, but there's still that view to consider. The Battersea battle lines are firmly drawn - Boris must decide.
Here's a sample of the latest views published.
I'm all for the redevelopment of the listed Battersea power Station
which for the past 26 years has been a derelict eyesore and blight in
south London and reminds me of the sort of dereliction that was seen
all over London after the war.
But we are no longer suffering from the austerity of the late 1940's & 50's, despite the threat of recession looming over our heads, threatening to dampen our enthusiasm for change and regeneration. At a time when builders are crying out for new developments and employment, we need a sensible, sustainable development of this historic sight. The overall pans are encouraging. However, I just cannot see why we need such a massive chimney with so many 'desirable condominiums' stuck round it, making it much more bulky that it needs be.
Nor has this sort of 'green technology' been tested in the temperate climate like the UK. Perhaps consideration should be made on how Treasury Holdings PLC could minimize the impact on this bulky tower both in terms of visual reference on the city and being so close to the incoming flight path of the worlds busiest airport and it's proximity of the new US Embassy, forever considered as a terrorist target.
A thermal glass tower is acceptable, but not one that resembles something out of a Thunderbirds film set, inviting a catastrophic assault on the visual history of London's river and all the history that has made this city into what it is.
- Martin Ireland, East Battersea
They want a tower for the high profile? They already have one, well 4
actually in Powerstation. And its that which should be the iconic
center piece - and as for teh glib comment about visibilty in london
being only 1 and half miles - well maybe thats true in China where he
seems to draw so much inspiration. Perception needs changing about
transport links Sloan square is only 15 min walk away , very freqent
bus route etc and batterse apark and queestown road right next door...
- Rotherfield Peppard, Battersea
By the way, that's not his wife, it's his sister
- T O'Neill, London
What a monster. This development should not be given the go-ahead at all.
As a former resident of London I am heartily sick and tired of Developers appearing to blackmail local people and the relevant authorities when it is clear that their Flash, Egotistical proposals hit the buffers.
I ask Boris dont given this proposal permission or you will be consigning london to a future where it will becoming nothing more than an Identikit Manhattan.
- James Thurston, Daventry, Northamptonshire
Why don't they go to Dubai with this ugly monster of a Dyson shaped
building. It does not fit in with London, the Thames, Chesea, Battersea
or the power station. These developers are of the same school of
rip-off merchants that have previously owned the listed building. They
won't be the last. If Wandsworth Councilgives permission they will just
sell the planning permission to the next "saviours " You will find that
London's mayor has no jurisdiction to decide this plan under any
existing laws. The idea to build a tube line through the clay beneath
south London will never happen especially as it will add another £4
billion to the cost which the developer has no plan to finance. They
have already borrowed £150 million from HBSO (soon to be subsumed
within Lloyds). Why are they not using this loan to repair the power
station? The whole plan is designed to fail and for Ronan and Barrett
to apply for consent to demolish the power station for the ubiqitous
luxury flats that have been built all along the river running through
Wandsworth - a disaster by the local planners over the past 30 years.
They already have permission to demolish the 4 iconic chimneys It is a
great pity that these selfish individuals might prevail.
- Brian Barnes Mbe, London
How can people complain about the potential impacts of this project on
Westminster's skyline when another skyscraper has already been approved
for St George Wharf, at the other end of Nine Elms Lane? Come to think
of it, what about Millbank Tower too?
There seems to be an element of nimbyism at work here. As a resident of Nine Elms Lane, it's clear that the area is a potential goldmine and has been neglected by developers for too long. It's unrealistic to think that Battersea Power Station can be rescued without some degree of compromise with the private sector. And personally, I'd rather see this kind of mixed-use development than yet another football stadium.
- Tom, Nine Elms
The architect’s ego rises to the fore, once again. Rafael Vinoly’s
scheme for a completely unnecessary huge glass tower, no matter how
eco-friendly it will be, seems to have been designed with no thought to
London’s skyline, let alone its neighbour. His website states: “A
building is never the product of an individual’s artistic volition… the
process is guided by logic and planning…” as his philosophy of design.
Having looked at the plans and graphics on the architect’s web site, I suggest he take stock of what he is proposing for this development: the unattractive glass tower, and hideous sweeping glass-covered associated buildings, hardly fits in with the clean lines and simple elegance of the Gilbert-Scott designed Power Station.
London has recently become a test-bed for world-class architects to unleash their ugly and ill-conceived ideas. Thankfully, such architectural nightmares as the “Cheesegrater” have been ditched – I hope the Mayor of London gives a lot of consideration to vetoing Vinoly’s unnecessary scheme. This is London, not New York.
Vinoly’s talent and energy would be put to better use devising a scheme that would make Battersea Power Station outstanding. The idea of spending £4bn on some completely new scheme is ludicrous: wouldn’t that £4bn be better spent turning what is after all an international icon into something that could be enjoyed by everyone?
What can be done with this monolith to use it to its best ability? It is, after all, too big to be a m
- Robin Ballance, Battersea SW11
This scheme has no chance of raising the necessary finance as banks are no longer lending on speculative ideas.
This site would be ideal for the Americans, they could have their embassy there, internment camp, and so on.
- John Jones, Westminster
What arrogance. Basically they are trying to convince us that they need
to build this hideous tower or else the power station will not be
refurbished. I went to the consultation and it was very obvious that
nobody liked the tower - it will be visible all over central London.
If we have to wait another 20 years for a decent design to come along, so be it - anything but that abomination.
- Peter, London
Well if this developments fate depends on a policy drawn up by Ken
Livingstone gaining the go-ahead from Boris should be easypeasy!
- Melvyn Windebank, Canvey Island, Essex
What about the waste disposal site behind the power station? I bet they haven't thought about that!
- Bloke, London
What an exciting and exceptional opportunity. It would be a beacon of
inspiration which could set a welcome trend on the international stage,
towards addressing global ecology. Boris has to give it the thumbs up.
- Chris Slade, Cheltenham, England