The rebirth of Docklands

Catherine Wheatley reports on a recovery
Back in the Eighties the Docklands area of east London was heralded as the ultimate yuppie neighbourhood. Yet by the early Nineties the notion had fallen flat. Who wanted to live in a glass-and-steel tower, symbol of all that was brash about the last decade, miles from the nearest shops and restaurants, and isolated by a notoriously unreliable transport system?

Docklands has always aroused strong emotions. When Canary Wharf rose out of the marshes, developers celebrated the birth of a new community. And when the owners, Olympia & York, went bust, the same people furiously blamed poor infrastructure.

But reports of the death of Docklands may have been exaggerated. A new, more rational attitude is emerging, as buyers recognise that the area is good value for money. Estate agents find that demand among City workers and professionals has risen sharply. According to the regeneration agency London Docklands Development Corporation, sales of flats and houses on the Isle of Dogs last year were up 140 per cent on 1995.

Hazel Ankesmit, a personnel administrator working in London's Mayfair, is typical of the new generation of buyers in E14. Tired of a daily commute from Hove, East Sussex, she is paying pounds l10,000 for a one-bedroom flat in Burrell's Wharf, through estate agent Knight Frank.

"I don't want to be in the smoky parts of London and I certainly don't want to live in a conventional road in Wandsworth. I think Docklands is good value. I'm getting security, easy parking and a river view - very important, as I'm a Pisces," she laughs.

The Jubilee Line extension from Green Park via Canary Wharf to Stratford is playing a pivotal role in the renaissance. At the moment the journey from the Isle of Dogs to the West End takes about three-quarters of an hour using the Docklands Light Railway. The new link, scheduled to open in March 1998, should cut commuting time to just 14 minutes.

Although Hazel Ankesmit is used to a long haul to work, the Underground line was a big factor in her choice of new home. "The bus service is all right and I think the DLR is fun, but Jubilee Line is really going to help. Also, shops and restaurants are going to pop up around the station," she adds.

Canary Wharf station will be next door to West India Quay, a proposed retail and leisure complex which will eventually include a supermarket, a multiplex cinema, a hotel, and around 20 restaurants and shops. The developers will also convert the beautiful Grade I listed West India Quay warehouses into 90 apartments. At Canary Wharf itself, the Riverside scheme planned by a Hong Kong entrepreneur will feature a sports and leisure centre, another hotel and possibly a casino, as well as 330 flats.

The projects, due to be completed by the end of next year, should finally crush the criticism that there are no facilities on the Isle of Dogs. Two years ago, unless locals were shopping for a new suit or a Filofax, a trip off the island was essential. But since then there has been a steady increase in the number and range of retailers. Now, residents can get their groceries at Tesco Metro and pop into Books Etc or Music Music before having lunch at Cafe Rouge or All Bar One.

Much of the improvement is due to more businesses relocating to E14: demand for offices is reinforcing demand for shops and housing. According to Rupert Cherryman, of estate agent Chesterton, Citibank's decision last August to pick Canary Wharf as the preferred site for its new UK headquarters will make a crucial difference.

"What's happening at Canary Wharf has generated a lot of interest," he says. "There is a feeling among home-buyers that Docklands is coming of age."

With all the renewed interest in Docklands, buying here is not necessarily easy. Simon O'Donnell, a management accountant, was gazumped last October when he tried to buy a house for pounds 94,500 in the Quay West development. "I've just paid the full asking price for my new place in Jamestown Harbour," he says. "But I still think it's a good deal. I've lived here for six years and I really enjoy it: Docklands is not as far away as people think."

Prices have already gone up by between 5 and 10 per cent, even though purpose-built developments and a handful of office-to-residential conversions will put more than 800 new homes on the Isle of Dogs this year. A repeat of last February's IRA bomb attack is another worry. But Simon O'Donnell, like many other buyers, is unperturbed. "I looked at properties in Greenwich and in Blackheath, but there was really nothing to compare with the Isle of Dogs. You get more for your money here."