It's not such a dog's life on the Island : DOCKLANDS A SPECIAL REPORT
London's Docklands may not be the brave new world the pioneers envisage d but it is starting to show pedigree. Anne Spackman reports
Wednesday 25 January 1995
In residential terms that is likely to remain true. Both the architecture and the location - so far from the social centre of the capital - mean it is unlikely to become part of prime London, on a par with Kensington or Mayfair.
But it is no longer considered a ridiculous place to live. The boundary of acceptability, which has slowly swept east down the Thames, taking in St Katherine's Dock, Wapping and Shad Thames, has finally reached the Isle of Dogs. Estate agents are now dropping the `Dogs' reference altogether and starting to talk about life "on the island".
The Isle of Dogs is pivotal to Docklands, sitting half way between the City and the Royal Docks, seven miles up river. It is dominated by the tower of Canary Wharf, which for so long hung like an empty promise over the Docklands' skyline.
Now the tower is gradually filling up. Thirty out of 50 floors have been let - one to the Independent. Half the office space in the other nine buildings which make up the Canary Wharf complex has also been taken. If the current negotiations with BZW and Morgan Stanley are successful that figure will rise from 50 to 70 per cent.
The rehabilitation of Docklands is inextricably linked with the success of Canary Wharf. The more people work there, the more Docklands seems like a natural part of London. Those who scorn it are starting to look out of date.
The housing market, which crashed here just as the paint was drying on hundreds of apartment blocks, is finally recovering. At the depth of the recession there were 3,500 unsold new homes in the area. By last summer there were fewer than 100 - though plenty of re-sales remain on the market, keeping prices low.
At least 1,000 new homes will be started in 1995, about double the figure for 1994. A further 1,500 are in for planning permission.Yet despite all this activity, one of the most notable features about Docklands is how empty it seems. It has become the zone of the 12-hour day computer shift worker.
To catch a glimpse of one you have to travel on the Docklands Light Railway at eight in the morning when the trains deliver cargoes of besuited workers into the central mall cafes. There they snatch an orange juice, a croissant and a bit of gossip, then file into the offices of firms like UBS, Ogilvy and Mather and Credit Suisse.
Ten hours later the cycle is repeated.
At these times Docklands feels like the real metropolis. There is an undeniable buzz, while the towers of glass, the automation, the scale of the architecture turn the place into Gotham City.
It is these workers, many of them young, who have been filling up the homes and are set to become the backbone of Docklands. The other main group of Docklands' people are the older professionals working either at the Wharf or in the City.
For the past two years, both groups housing requirements have been the same. Many started by commuting to work. Then they rented in the area to see if they could hack it. Knight Frank and Rutley, who barely touched lettings five years ago, now have a 50/50 sales and lettings split in their Isle of Dogs office.
These people have been looking for serviced living quarters. They want a parking place, a kitchen, bathroom and a couple of rooms. The developers who have most successfully satisfied their requirements have been Galliard Homes and Barratt - the only original Docklands survivors.
Galliard's strategy has been to buy sites off the receiver for a song, do them up and sell them on. At their Tideway development in Rotherhithe they pulled in the crowds last spring by pitching the cheapest one-bedroom flat at £49,950 including a parkingspace.
Now they are shifting tack. They have bought Jubilee Wharf, a prime riverside site in Wapping, where they plan to enter the £250,000 market. They believe - and many agents agree - that many of those who have given Docklands a go are now firm converts.
By starting to build more expensive properties, developers are demonstrating the belief that they can at last sell on something more sophisticated than price.
Chief among those merits is the 10-minute commute, which, with ever-lengthening working hours, has become a priority. Gyms are also a bonus in some developments and parking is more often available than not.
The area still lacks some obvious basics, such as a cinema and a Marks & Spencer. But, like the Jubilee Line, due to open in 1998, they will come eventually.
What it is far harder to envisage is the voluntary inward migration of families with children.
There is one Montessori nursery in Shad Thames and a second looking for premises, but after that the schooling options are bleak. This is a serious, but not a terminal flaw - after all, many of the same criticisms could be levelled against Islington, which has become a popular and expensive area to live.
Docklands is gradually fragmenting like any other part of London into the fashionable and less fashionable areas. The closer you get to the City and to the river, the smarter the area. Knight Frank and Rutley are currently selling Dockmaster's House by Tower Bridge, bought by Peter Drew for a few pounds 25 years ago, for £1m.
Across the river at Surrey Quays the new properties have largely been bought by local people, as they are likely to be at the Royal Docks outpost on the north bank.
Docklands will never be a zone of Porsches and red braces, as originally suggested. Nor has the feared economic apartheid evolved. Instead it is becoming like any other international city, a mixture of rich and poor. It is not what the pioneers expected,but it is something more natural and organic and ultimately more harmonious.
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