The new heart of the city

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The Independent Online
It is deja vu all over again in Stratford, site of yet another major transportation overhaul. Not long ago, hordes of hard hats were extending the Jubilee Line and the Docklands Light Railway, improving an already rich rail infrastructure.

Today, the cranes are courtesy of two related projects, each massive in its own right. A new international station is being built, linking Stratford with France and Belgium in one direction, and St Pancras and Scotland in the other. "Stratford City" will inject 4,500 new homes, hotels, a colossal retail park with three department stores, offices, schools and leisure facilities into a 180-acre plot alongside the new station. Despite ongoing recent regeneration, Stratford still badly needs a facelift.

Newham Borough officials and property developers also hope that London is awarded the 2012 Olympics. The Olympic Village, an 80,000-seat stadium and the lion's share of other sporting venues would be built in Stratford.

"Ten years ago, this town was a grubby, tatty East End community on an old drover route," says Clive Fenton, chairman of housebuilder Barratt's southern region. "Now it is up and coming. The skyline is changing and Stratford will be like an extension of Docklands."

For two decades Barratt has been constructing large apartment blocks in Stratford, many of them office conversions. "This is a vibrant multicultural area containing a large number of Asians, many of whom are keen investors," Fenton says. "Stratford attracts occupiers who want the convenience of London, especially people who work in Canary Wharf or the City, and want outstanding transportation links. Stratford is unsurpassed in all of London for public transport." Barratt is selling flats and townhouses at Stratford Square, a conversion of a London Electricity Board building that was a familiar landmark on Romford Road.

Much of the Eurostar tunnelling around Stratford is already in place, and the station itself should be finished in 2007. However, the farthest reaches of Stratford City won't be polished off until at least 2020. "Parts of Stratford will be a building site for the foreseeable future," admits Fenton, "but its transformation will be radical."

What can I buy?

One-bed flats start at about pounds 100,000, but ex-council flats and part- ownership schemes are cheaper. Two-bed flats in Barratt's Stratford Square start at pounds 194,995. Three-bed terraces sell for less than pounds 250,000. "You can save about pounds 30,000 on a three-bed house if you buy in the Carpenters Road and Abbey Lane areas, which have a mix of residential, council and commercial properties," says John Coupe, regional manager of Halifax Estate Agency.

What's the transport like?

The new EuroStar route will link Stratford with Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as Paris and Brussels, and improvements on the southern end of the North London Line will increase train frequency and also enhance the service reliability between Stratford and the Royals, ExCel Exhibition Centre, and London City Airport via Canning Town.

Anything for culture vultures?

The venerable Theatre Royal has been staging plays since 1884, and the multi-screen Picture House shows commercial as well as arty films. The Stratford Circus performance arts centre opened in 2001, briefly closed when it went bust, and is now managed by Newham Sixth Form College (aka NewVIc).

Anything for calorie-burners?

Straddling Stratford are two vast green spaces, Hackney Marsh and Wanstead Flats. Choose the former to play football - there are approximately 100 football pitches - and the latter for rustic walks and twitching. Sandwiched between Hackney Marsh and the site of the international rail station and Stratford City is Eton Manor Sports Ground and Lea Valley Sports Centre. Soon to be built is an ultramodern Zaha Hadid-designed aquatic centre with two 50m swimming pools and a competition diving pool.

Can you shop till you drop?

Today, the selection is limited mostly to a large Safeway, a small Sainsbury's and a few standard multiples. But Stratford City will contribute an additional 1.5m square feet of retail and leisure space, similar in magnitude to a monster mall. "Stratford will become the shopping area for the entire region, like Bluewater," says local councillor Conor McAuley.

What are the schools like?

State school results are below average, understandable perhaps in an area where English is not the first language for many pupils. Religiously affiliated schools such as St Bonaventure's ("outstandingly effective," said Ofsted) and St Angela's get good results, and new schools are planned for Stratford City.

Will the Olympics come here?

Paris is favoured to defeat all four contenders: London, Madrid, Moscow and New York. But if the bookies are wrong and the games come to this side of the Channel, the 17,000-bed Olympic village will be turned into 5,000 homes after the games have ended.

And one for the pub quiz

Name the Theatre Royal's most famous director and production.

Answer: Joan Littlewood, whose productions include the award-winning Oh! What A Lovely War (l963).

Halifax, 020-8519 2660; Upsdales, 020-8519 7600; Barratt, 020-8519 9658.