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London's Tall Building Boom


High rises are redefining a city known for its low-rise low

London—charming, historic, resolutely low-rise—is experiencing an unparalleled boom in tall buildings.
Hayes Davidson

There are 236 London towers—buildings of at least 20 stories—in the planning or construction stages, according to an audit carried out for think tank New London Architecture, which studies the capital's architectural landscape and urban planning. Around 80% of these buildings are residential, and one in five is under construction. The NLA estimates that there are 220 existing towers in London, which means this new crop could double the number of high-rises in the city.

Take Canary Wharf, a modern commercial neighborhood in East London and the location of London's first bona fide skyscraper, the 770-foot One Canada Square office building, completed in 1991.

Over the next few years it is set to be joined by the 715-foot Newfoundland tower, which was granted building permits earlier this month. Work on the 58-story building, which will have 566 apartments, will start this summer, with completion expected in 2018.

This kind of high-end tower is helping to reshape the long held reservations Londoners have about the merits of high-rise living. Most of the city's existing residential towers are hangovers from the 1960s and 1970s. The vast majority were built as social housing, and are today stigmatized after decades of association with serious structural and social problems.

The new crop of towers is aimed at luxury living. The $330 million Baltimore Tower, also in development in Canary Wharf, was designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the firm behind One World Trade Center and Dubai's Burj Khalifa. The 492-foot building, expected to be completed in 2016, has a circular, twisting design; it will include a restaurant, movie theater and private club lounge, plus a gym and swimming pool. 

Since October, some 300 of its 330 apartments have been sold. The buyers are a mix of U.K. residents and overseas investors, particularly those from the Middle East. Prices for the remaining homes start at around $694,000 for a 367-square-foot studio apartment, while four-bedroom penthouses of 3,011 square feet are priced at $11.5 million.

Another skyscraper hot spot is Stratford, East London, the neighborhood that played host to the 2012 Olympics. Weston Homes, a British property developer, is building the 250-foot Stratford Riverside tower. Homes have been available since February in the $100 million glass-and-steel tower, which is topped by a roof garden. So far, 106 of the 160 apartments have sold in advance of completion in 2016.

Prices start at about $455,000 for a 550-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment. Three-bedroom apartments, at 1,283 square feet, are priced at around $1.1 million.

Soaring prices for London property are helping drive more buildings skyward. "It is very difficult to make towers work if they are selling below £650 (about $1,076) per square foot, but because prices have been rising so fast, there are huge areas of London which now qualify," says Ed de Jonge, director in the residential development department of Savills.

Apartments in the Baltimore Tower will have panoramic city views. Frogmore/Galliard Homes/LBS Properties/O’Shea Frogmore/Galliard Homes/LBS Properties/O?Shea

Creating skyscrapers in a city packed with historic sites isn't without complication. There are skyscraper-exclusion zones around particularly important buildings such as Buckingham Palace and St. Paul's Cathedral where building permits for towers won't be granted.

Even with these safeguards in place, Peter Murray, chairman of NLA, believes that more strategic planning is needed. "At the moment we have this perfect storm of high demand, high land prices and international investment," he says. "We have a particularly difficult task in London because we have to fit new buildings into a historic environment. A new skyscraper popping up behind a historic building might enhance it—but we need someone to look at it in the context of other proposals for the area to make sure. We do not want to end up with a terrible mess which everyone regrets."

David Galman, group sales director of Galliard Homes, part of the consortium building the Baltimore Tower, believes sheer pressure for new housing means London's vertical revolution will continue. "If you look at the space that is available in London, the only way is up," he says.

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