Clouds descend on Foster's City tower

The 1,265ft building scheme is not popular, writes Richard Halstead
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The chances of Sir Norman Foster's Millennium Tower ever making it off the drawing-board to become Britain's tallest building were dealt a blow this weekend when the Corporation of London, the City's governing body, said it had "serious reservations" about the project.

Plans for the 1,265ft transparent skyscraper, with offices, gardens and penthouses, were revealed last week, amid concern about its impact on the London skyline. Critics say that the 1.5 million square foot building, constructed of floor-to-ceiling glass at a cost of pounds 400m, would dominate the City and overshadow St Paul's Cathedral.

The City Corporation has more pressing, pragmatic concerns. Will the skyscraper, proposed for the site of the bombed Baltic Exchange, provide the space that big business requires? Will it help the Square Mile compete against Paris and Frankfurt for top billing as Europe's financial capital?

Corporation officers are understood to be concerned at the effect that the skyscraper - 30 per cent taller than the Canary Wharf tower, twice as high as the NatWest tower, housing 10,000 people and with 94 storeys, each of 30,000sq ft - will have on the recovering property market in the City, which crashed in the early 1990s after a spate of speculative buildings put up in the late Eighties failed to find tenants.

A senior source in the Corporation said: "The City doesn't need something this size at the moment. It's grossly out of scale with the area and, if we allow it to be built, there will be a queue of developers demanding the same planning consent to do towers of their own."

Officials have also voiced concerns about the congestion of the narrow streets around the site both during construction and after the building is opened, when the streets will be filled with delivery vehicles and messengers serving 10,000 office workers, three restaurants and possibly a hotel.

Although the granting of planning permission in the City is the responsibility of the Corporation, it is likely that an application of this size, to replace the listed Baltic Exchange, would be referred to the Environment Secretary, John Gummer.

Alan Winter, managing director of Trafalgar House Properties, the tower's developer, described the Foster design as "bold, controversial and courageous".

He said: "It is at least admirable to come up with an idea such as this and give people the choice to have it or not. How else do cities grow? The real question posed by this tower is, does the City want to compete with Docklands? The answer has to be yes."

Competing with Docklands means competing with Canary Wharf tower, at present Britain's tallest building. Ever since that was built it has been a beacon on the skyline of London, alerting the people of the capital and international business to the Square Mile's East End rival. With the City Corporation indicating until now its desire to see top-quality "statement" buildings constructed in the City, Trafalgar House has been confident that its building would win plaudits from the planners.

But the Foster tower's height, its two vast, "erotic", gherkin-shaped structures at the top, housing penthouse flats and hotels, and its kidney- shaped office floors are believed to have left planners uneasy.

It has certainly alarmed conservationists, who appear ready for a long battle to stop the Millennium Tower being built.

At this stage, the tower's future is far from assured. Trafalgar House not only needs planning permission but also financial backing and potential occupiers for its building.

The key to the building's success will be to attract the kind of financial services companies that have been migrating to larger and cheaper premises in Canary Wharf and the West End in recent years.

Mr Winter indicated that if no tenant of sufficient size emerged, the tower would be rented on a floor-by-floor basis and financing secured by selling the right to receive the rental income to financial institutions.

The tower would offer a lead tenant up to 1.3 million square feet of office space, including up to seven 20,000sq ft trading floors. Rents are likely to be pounds 40 per square foot, earning the owner of the Millenium Tower around pounds 60m a year if the building is filled.

Likely occupiers are HSBC (the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), which might be tempted to move into a "financial statement" office akin to its Hongkong Bank tower in Hong Kong, also designed by Sir Norman Foster, and Merrill Lynch. It is known to want to complete the integration of Smith New Court, the stockbroker it bought last year, by bringing it under one roof. But it is not clear whether the 20,000 sq ft trading floors planned for the tower would be large enough to accommodate the combined trading operations.

Property analysts were cautiously optimistic about the tower's chances.

"London deserves a building of this size," said John Forrester, the manager of the City office of property agents DTZ Debenham Thorpe, "but there are easier places to put a tower than on the Baltic Exchange site. Access by delivery vans and messengers could be a problem because of the narrow streets."

Another property analyst said he was concerned at the knock-on effect such a development would have on property in the rest of the City, especially if the current trends of mergers and downsizing continued in the financial services sector and the Millenium Tower came on the market in the middle of a recession.

"They will fill it, because it is a glamour property," he said, "but it will leave empty buildings all over the City."