High stakes play on the waterfront: Nick Gilbert on the Taiwan boys with a dream for Battersea
Sunday 28 February 1993
At noon on Friday, George Hwang, 41, and younger brother Victor became the owners of Battersea Power Station, the listed red-brick building on the Thames. Along with the empty hulk, they acquired 31 acres of redevelopment potential that, to the dismay of his bankers, turned from a dream to a nightmare for its owner, Cheshire entrepreneur John Broome.
After selling Alton Towers, the Staffordshire theme park, to the Pearson Group three years ago, Mr Broome planned to open 'The Battersea' - a pounds 100m-plus theme park. But the project ran into financial trouble and work ceased.
The arrival of the Hwangs, whose father moved his fortune from Taiwan to Hong Kong about 10 years ago, has been welcomed in Wandsworth, the Conservative London borough that has been severely embarrassed by the large hole in its midst and the failure of Mr Broome to pay pounds 170,000 of council building fees.
'We're just delighted that somebody with real financial resources has come along and that something is happening at last after 10 years of waiting,' says council leader Edward Lister. 'It's the largest undeveloped site in central London and the potential for jobs is enormous.'
That, of course, was just as true a decade ago. About the only recent rival proposal was a little less fancy than a theme park: turning the station over to a rubbish-recycling plant.
Even now, the Hwangs, who control a Hong Kong based property, shipping and construction business, have not disclosed their plans for the site - though Mr Lister hopes to hear more at a meeting in a few weeks' time. So, too, will English Heritage, which oversees listed buildings.
'They said they want to preserve the power station but with a few caveats,' says Mr Lister.
Those who know the Hwangs say the caveat is simple. If they can see a way of turning the ruin into money, fine. If not, they will back off unless the listing is lifted, and the power station could be bulldozed.
Despite its listing, the power station is not to everybody's taste and jobs are jobs. Opening up the site would also release the redevelopment potential of 10 adjacent acres.
The Hwangs are likely to be less interested in a huge theme park (though they have a stake in a similar venture in Japan) than in building offices, leisure facilities, a hotel and luxury flats.
The family's most famous and most visible asset is part-ownership of Parkview, a development featuring more than a dozen 20-storey luxury apartment blocks in Tai Tam, a country park on Hong Kong Island.
The brothers, backed by their father, have taken over the power station by buying out the debt held by banks, which had lent about pounds 70m to Mr Broome's company. They are thought to have paid about 15p in the pound with Bank of America, which took over Security Pacific, Mr Broome's original backer, taking the lion's share of a pounds 60m write-off.
But the Hwangs have hardly got a bargain. They have yet to reach a deal with building company Sir Robert McAlpine, which is owed a rumoured pounds 15m or more for its work stripping out asbestos and strengthening the foundations of the power station. To redevelop the site fully could cost up to pounds 500m - a sum they are unlikely to be able to afford themselves and one which the banks, after the experience with Mr Broome, are unlikely to rush to lend.
But the Hwangs like the waterfront site. There is talk of them putting some of their operations, including the proposed Battersea venture, into a new British company and trying to raise funding on the stock market.
The Hwangs are used to thinking big. Another current notion is to buy a disused oil refinery in the US and ship it pipe by pipe to China. The main difference between that idea and Battersea is that the Chinese economy is on a flood tide, growing at 10 per cent a year, whereas the old power station is at low water.
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