Hot Spot Birmingham
Birmingham will soon be blessed with its own example of the latest trend in modern architecture: buildings that are inspired by bagels. In Paris, La Defense is a massive rectangular office building minus most of its middle. Birmingham's version will have a more modest hole.

Currently a postal sorting office,, the renovated building will have a large gap through the centre, leading to a multi-level promenade sporting all of the following: open-air restaurants and shops alongside a canal. Called the Mailbox, it will contain offices, retail outlets, leisure facilities, restaurants, a hotel and 140 flats. Crosby Homes has bought the air rights, so the apartments will be on the upper levels and will consist of roof-garden flats and penthouses.

The Mailbox is part of a larger wave of projects in which offices and retail outlets are being constructed alongside residential developments. Former office buildings and warehouses are being put to new, glossy uses. The Britannic, which is soon to open, is a crescent-shaped art deco building containing more than 100 luxury flats, including seven penthouses. Seven fitted apartments and 12 shells remain in the Millennium development. In addition, a 50-storey mixed-used tower is also planned.

Birmingham has warmed to city-centre living. Sherborne Wharf, a canalside warehouse containing large shell apartments and triplex penthouses, has one remaining unit. Symphony Court is a large Dutch-style development of flats and town houses near Symphony Hall.

"The appeal is not just to young first-timers but also to middle-aged and retired buyers, who like being close to the various facilities," says Andrew Spittle, of Robert Powell estate agents. Recent vendors have enjoyed profits of 25 per cent and more over the last year and a half.

"Five to 10 years ago Birmingham was deadly," says Mr Spittle. "Now cinemas, restaurants, interesting bars and shops have arrived, and it is a good and interesting and exciting place to live in."

Birmingham's two convention centres, its indoor arena and major commercial projects such as Brindleyplace, Britain's largest mixed-use development, provide an infrastructure that is being reinforced by major new developments, including the refurbishment of the Sixties Bull Ring shopping centre. Martineau Galleries will provide modern space for department stores, shops, cinemas, and health and leisure facilities.

More and better shopping is long overdue: "Birmingham is second in population but ranks seventh in retail provision. Milan is Italy's second city, and it is a shopper's paradise," says corporate affairs director Christopher Smith, of the Bull Ring developer, Hammerson.

America's second city, Chicago, is architecturally outstanding. Birmingham may soon emulate the considerable strengths of both Chicago and Milan.

Robert Liebman

The Low-Down

Transport: Birmingham has four motorways, one international airport, and intercity rail services. A tram service between Birmingham, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton is scheduled to begin in January.

Prices: Birmingham prices average less than half those of London. Robert Powell has one-bedroom and two-bedroom flats just below and above pounds 40,000. One-bedroom flats in Symphony Court sell for about pounds 150,000. Serviced flats are handled by Knight Frank, whose partner, David Fenton, says: "Birmingham's property market is not yet mature and has a ceiling. It is difficult to achieve prices in the early pounds 300,000s."

Suburbs: In Edgbaston, Solihull, Sutton Coldfield, Harborne and other surrounding areas, large family homes can sell for as much as pounds 850,000, but five-bedroom detached period homes on large plots are available in the pounds 250,000-pounds 300,000 range.

Council tax: For 1998/99, Band A is pounds 564, Band H is pounds 1,592. Band A comprises 165,000 properties, whereas Band H contains only 772.

Nautical but nice: The National Sea Life Centre has more than 3,000 finny inmates, some of which, says its bumf, are "in a 360-degree transparent underwater tunnel which allows you to stand suspended while sharks, stingrays and other creatures swim above you, around you and even underneath you."

Chocolate: When George Cadbury started producing chocolate in Birmingham in 1824, it was considered an aphrodisiac and so not appropriate for ladies.

Balti more: The spicy aromatic Kashmiri dish is a Birmingham speciality in over 100 restaurants.

Attractions: Markets of all kinds (Rag Market, Row Market, Bull Ring indoor market and open markets), music of all kinds (a noted symphony orchestra; many pop and rock venues), museums, top schools and recreation areas.

Estate Agents: Knight Frank (the Mailbox) 0121-236 0777; Robert Powell & Co: 0121-454 6930.