On 17 May, Westfield shareholders ticked the £18.5bn takeover offer made in December 2017 by French retail giant Unibail-Rodamco. A week earlier I’d asked Croydon council chief executive Jo Negrini if she was worried that the coming surrender of Westfield to the French might further delay the £1.4bn Whitgift Centre, five years in the planning by Westfield and Hammerson. I’ll return to her response later.
In 2013, the pair promised an opening date of 2017-18. It was a time when Westfield was king of retail development and Hammerson was queen. A time when it was unimaginable that Westfield founder Frank Lowy would cede power to the French. Or that Hammerson would shelve a decade-long plan for a £1.4bn extension to Brent Cross – as it did last week.
The Westfield/Hammerson joint venture holds, for now, under the Croydon Partnership banner, with an added Unibail patch. Work is promised to start next year. On 3 1 May, John Lewis and Waitrose became anchor tenants. Hammerson chief investment officer Peter Cole said: “Over the coming months, we are looking to make further progress with the land assembly process ahead of commencing [my italics] detailed design.”
“Given the history of this blighted project anything is possible. Even an opening in 2025.”
Westfield Europe head of development John Burton said: “The Croydon Partnership is delighted to deliver two of the UK’s leading brands. This is a major milestone and is a demonstration of the strength of Croydon and the project.”
Since then, Burton has gone and Cole is going. The latter fell on his sword last week as part of Hammerson’s defensive plan to shrink the business in order to increase its share price. Burton waved his new French masters goodbye in early July, saying he was off home to Oz. (A cheerful dynamo of a man, he would perk up intu’s share price, would he only come back to Blighty to replace soon-to-depart boss David Fischel.)
The Croydon Partnership is now a Franco/British alliance, with the home partner suffering from nerves. Hammerson boss David Atkins barely mentioned the C-word in his restatement of aims last week. Unibail-Rodamco chief executive Christophe Cuvillier must be mulling buying out Hammerson.
So what does Negrini think? At the Carter Jonas breakfast Q&A back in May, Croydon’s chief executive was careful in her answers, even when pressed. But the look in the Aussie town planner’s eyes told the tale. “We’re not stupid. We are watching carefully what is going on.”
Meaning, I suspect, that like Mrs May and her contingency plans for hard Brexit, Negrini’s team have contingency plans for Crexit: the departure of one or both the members of the Croydon Partnership, and/or a further substantial delay. Unlikely, yes. More likely is Unibail taking effective control and completing the development using the talented Westfield team under Peter Miller, who ran Europe for Westfield and is now chief operating officer of the UK. But given the history of this blighted project anything is possible. Even an opening in 2025.
Westfield buzzes west to east
Emerging from Wood Green tube station you see the Westfield logo on the White City shopping centre, its typography seemingly borrowed from a 1950s station wagon. (I once asked European boss Michael Gutman if they would ever revamp the brand. “Only after Frank Lowy dies,” was his reply.)
Over the road sits a recoated doughnut, once the BBC TV centre, now expertly and elegantly turned into 432 flats by Stanhope at £1,200/sq ft. Only 70 or so are left, so hurry.
A short walk north with Stanhope consultant Martyn Chase into White City Place was revelatory. The 900 000 sq ft office campus is renting at circa £50/sq ft to media folk. Stanhope plans to add 1m sq ft, given a pre-let. The only other place with similar buzz is in east London. That’s right, just over the road from Westfield Stratford. Don a T-shirt. Hire a bike. Go see either. Both made me feel like 1950s man.
Sweet sounds from Holland Park
Holland Walk takes you from Holland Park Avenue to a set of 72 glorious flats to die for, but only if you can afford the £2.5k/sq ft and upwards being asked at Holland Park Villas by Native Land. No need to hurry, there are 20 to 30 left. At this level, one a month is considered a decent sales rate. I get to look not touch with upstanding Native boss Alasdair Nicholls.
The newly dubbed £1.4bn Bankside Yards development on the south side of Blackfriars bridge is his next challenge. The building that once housed the Property Week offices on the site has been demolished. A tower even taller than the clumsy Berkeley wedge across the road is in for planning.
On the way back down Holland Walk, I pass a green, anonymous hoarding. A piledriver can be heard. Sounds like Christian Candy has begun work on Duke’s Walk, a 35,550 sq ft development of 27 flats. The site, valued at £75m, was withdrawn from sale last August. Flats to die for will no doubt appear next year.
Peter Bill is a journalist and author of Planet Property