City goes for the groundscraper

A new type of building will counter the threat from Docklands. Catherine Pepinster reports
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The Independent Online
UPWARDS - for 100 years the great building direction of commercial centres - is now passe among the planners of the City of London. Here comes the groundscraper.

This squat monster of a building, only seven or eight storeys tall but the size of a shopping centre, is the new model for commercial expansion in London's historic Square Mile as it mounts a fightback against the boom in office building in Docklands, three miles to the east. There, it is Europe's tallest office tower at Canary Wharf - ominously visible from the City itself - which is luring bankers and brokers to a newly- built Wall Street-on-the-water. Yet the City, fearing its long-established position as the financial capital of Europe is about to be eroded, has not chosen to rival the 800ft 50-storey tower in planning its riposte.

Instead it has set about identifying 20 sites where relatively short but giant buildings of half a million square feet each can be built. The notion of the groundscraper is fewer storeys but maximum floor space: the ideal home for the vast dealing rooms ever more needed by the big new investment banks created by link-ups between firms such as Merrill Lynch and Smith New Court.

The City's target is to have more than twice as much state-of-the-art office space as Canary Wharf in as short a time as possible. To this end, it has cut through its own red tape and is streamlining planning permissions. Finding the sites is a complex task because the City's winding medieval street pattern has to be taken into account. The selection of buildings to be demolished is easier: the obvious targets are the much-disliked Sixties office blocks, which besides being architectural eyesores do not have the floor space - or even more vital, the under-floor space for computer cabling - which modern dealing rooms require.

Although Canary Wharf had a troubled beginning, with the whole enterprise at one stage being taken over by its banks amidst fears it would prove to be Britain's greatest property white elephant, more recently it has begun to take on the look of success. Alarm bells sounded in the City earlier this year when the merchant bank Barclays de Zoete Wedd announced it was Docklands-bound.

Businessmen began to mutter that there was a severe shortage of suitable offices in the Square Mile and that Canary Wharf, with its infrastructure in place, its growing array of shops and bars, and the Jubilee Line extension underway, was becoming a serious rival. Even more worrying was the suggestion that the City might lose out to Frankfurt, Paris or even Berlin.

Michael Cassidy, chairman of the City Corporation's planning and resources committee, is in weekly contact with the banks to discuss their needs. He has appointed the corporation's first director of economic development, a post more usually found in run-down Yorkshire conurbations than one of the wealthiest municipalities in the world. Dr Keith Haarhoff, the director, said: "We are talking to the banks more than ever before. The City's great advantage is its immense critical mass and we mustn't lose it."

Aptly for a community once surrounded by fortified walls, the City has also looked to its boundaries to build up its defences. It has formed unlikely allegiances with neighbouring boroughs, once seen as its ideological opposites, to bid for government money, normally used for rundown inner- city areas, to refurbish buildings on the City fringe and train the workforce.

Will it all lead to a forest of construction cranes returning to the City skyline?

Geoff Marsh, director of London Property Research, thinks the City's timing could still go wrong. "The corporation is a clever organisation, and threw out its old guidelines to ensure it survived. But the danger is that we could have a repeat of what happened at the end of the Eighties. The boom could quickly turn into a glut."