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Station Helps Put London District on the Right Track

Wish we can get properties with this kind of characters in Vancouver... Merry Christmas!

December 23, 2011

Station Helps Put London District on the Right Track


LONDON — The English poet John Betjeman described the towering Gothic rail station of St. Pancras in north-central London as “too beautiful and too romantic to survive.” But survive it did, even after being slated for demolition in the 1960s.

And now, as home to London’s Eurostar terminus and a hotel and apartment complex, it has kick-started the regeneration of an entire district, where residential prices are estimated to have risen more than 9 percent in the past year alone.

Although the neighborhood’s focal point is the famous red brick St. Pancras, Londoners usually refer to the area as King’s Cross for the rather prosaic rail terminus of the same name a block away. (There also is a third main rail station, Euston, in the area.)

The soaring hulk of the old station, raised in 1871, is now listed as a Grade 1 building, “of exceptional interest,” by English Heritage . Turning part of it into luxury apartments was “extremely challenging,” said Harry Handelsman, chief executive of Manhattan Loft Corp., the London-based developer of the project.

“But it was also incredibly satisfying to know that we were restoring the building faithfully and accurately from an historical perspective,” said Mr. Handelsman, whose team incorporated railroad ties, the large timbers used as a base for tracks, into the design of some of the apartments.

All 67 units in the project, known as St. Pancras Chambers, were sold in 2005 before construction began at an average of slightly more than £800 per square foot — unprecedented prices for the area at that time and what today would be $1,245 per square foot, or $13,400 per square meter.

The first owners got the keys to their apartments in 2009. There is now a two-bedroom, 1,097-square-foot, or 102-square-meter, unit on sale for £1.25 million through the Knight Frank real estate agency.

Liam Bailey, head of residential research at Knight Frank, calculates that average house and apartment values in the King’s Cross district have risen 41 percent over the past five years, with a 9.1 percent increase in the past 12 months alone.

Stanley Fink, a British hedge fund manager and former chief executive of the Man Group, owns a spacious three-bedroom apartment at St. Pancras Chambers, partly occupying what used to be the station’s water tower.

Lord Fink, who was made a baron for life in January, did not want to disclose the price of the apartment but said that he had bought it as a shell and paid for the completion. The unit retains the water tower’s inspection platforms and some brickwork and has several fireplaces. The railroad ties were sandblasted, revealing a honey-gold color, and look like ship’s timbers in the apartment, the owner said.

While he likes the residence, Lord Fink also praised the location. “This is a neighborhood on the up,” he said. “It’s incredibly good for communications. If you move about London by public transport or by car, you are 15 minutes from the City and Parliament. Paris is literally two hours from my bedroom.”

In real estate terms, the neighborhood between Islington, the fashionable area northeast of King’s Cross, and Bloomsbury, home to the British Museum in the southwest, was long considered one of London’s missed opportunities.

And in some ways it still is: unlovely Pentonville Road, the main artery connecting King’s Cross and Islington, features ramshackle pubs, liquor stores and a string of discount mattress and bedding outlets. Side streets contain long-stay hotels patronized by welfare recipients and backpackers’ hostels.

Crucial to the long-term future of the neighborhood is King’s Cross Central, a 67-acre, or 27-hectare, development north of the train station, straddling Regent’s Canal. It is designed to contain 8 million square feet of mixed-use space, with investment in new infrastructure expected to total £2 billion.

The limited partnership behind the project includes London & Continental Railways, the company responsible for the St. Pancras rail station renovations.

The development is to contain 2,000 new homes, plus student dormitories for the University of the Arts London, which opened on the site in September. The first residential building will be ready at the end of 2012; the rest is scheduled to take at least 10 years to complete.

The developer also promises a focal point, Granary Square, that will be “similar in scale” to Trafalgar Square, according to the developer’s Web site.

While neighborhood prices have continued to rise, Nick Moore of the Islington branch of the Cluttons estate agency noted that a family house in Islington, the area that Tony Blair and his family called home before Mr. Blair became prime minister in 1997, might sell for £1.3 million. A mile away in King’s Cross, it still would only fetch around £750,000.

But, Mr. Moore noted, overseas buyers in particular are starting to take notice of the area: “King’s Cross is very convenient to the City of London. Meanwhile, St. Pancras offers Eurostar connections on the doorstep. This is attracting a lot of interest from French and Italians, who have not up to now had this area on their radar.”

Residential property investment in London generally was bolstered in August by the news that the average monthly rent in the capital had broken through the £1,000 barrier.

For the moment, flats in large terraced houses are a staple of the King’s Cross property market. Turning them back into single-family homes — the aim of many prosperous buyers — requires planning permission that is often difficult to obtain, as the local authorities in London tend to see this type of reconversion as reducing the housing stock.

A four-floor Victorian terraced single-family home on Gifford Street, close to King’s Cross station, and with 1,456 square feet of living space, is available through the Cluttons agency for £795,000. The property has three reception rooms and a modern kitchen and bathroom. One of its two bedrooms opens onto a roof terrace overlooking the property’s rear garden.

It is undoubtedly the kind of house that would command a higher asking price almost anywhere else in central London.

In October, the Lloyds TSB bank reported a revival in the market for properties of £1 million and more, particularly in England’s affluent southeast. It said there were more than 3,300 property sales of £1 million or more in the first half of 2011 in Britain, an increase of 10 percent from the same period last year. Most of these sales were in the capital.