When the 120-acre Canary Wharf Estate’s towerblocks are fully occupied, its desks host 120,000 people — the vast majority of whom descend into the Tube or late-night Ubers at the end of each day, leaving the Wharf to more of a ghostly existence.
Unsurprisingly, its owners — Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund and Canadian investor Brookfield Properties — now want that to change, especially after Covid and hybrid working hit staff numbers.
New plans for a “green spine” designed by the architects of the Eden Project, with gardens meandering through Canary Wharf, aim to turn it from a vast glass and concrete office complex to a green-filled spot where people — it hopes — will actually want to live.
“This is Canary Wharf 3.0,” claims chief executive Shobi Khan. “1.0 was the traditional, big financial centre, 2.0 was eight years ago when we started embarking on residential construction, now 3.0 is the greening, plus adding more leisure, restaurants, entertainment — electric go-karts starting soon — and activating the water.
“The offices were built with their backs to the water, now we want it to be a place for paddle- boarding and swimming. We want to create an amazing community with something for everyone.”
It’s a big project — Khan won’t reveal the budget beyond admitting to at least a “seven-figure” sum, but says those behind it have visited international regeneration sites including Chicago’s River Walk, Copenhagen’s revamped waterfront and New York’s High Line to hone their plans.
Planning permission is to be submitted next month — but will Londoners actually want to live in Canary Wharf?
Shih-Yu Phang, associate at Chesterton’s Canary Wharf branch, claims interest in the area is higher than at any other point since he started to work (and live) in the area in 2010.
“Since Covid, demand has roared back,” Phang says. “I’ve been in the office for 12 years and suddenly our biggest problem is we don’t have enough property to sell.
“We’re now seeing more people who are priced out of central London looking here. Where previously buyers were time-poor Canary Wharf workers who wanted to live nearby, or those who had historically lived in the Isle of Dogs, now we’re getting buyers from the City, Stratford and Greenwich who want to live here.”
The area has already become more leisure-orientated.
“When I first moved here, there were shops but not much else — now there are art exhibitions, a jazz festival, ice rink, and restaurants on the surface, not just underground.”
Khan, who joined as Canary Wharf Group’s first outside CEO in late 2019, boasts that the area now has four grocery shops — including Waitrose and an Amazon store. Last year was the first time residents could actually move into the part of Canary Wharf owned by the CWG, with 2400 flats, mostly at Wood Wharf (around half for sale, the rest for rent), stretching from £650,000 to several million. Some 90% are occupied, Khan says.
Many were sold to owners in the Far East, but that proportion is changing, says Phang.
“Foreign buyers love Canary Wharf — those from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and China especially like its big City feel, it’s clean, and safe — but the percentage of Far East buyers is now falling from about 50% to 30% because competition has grown from UK buyers: if they want to snap things up, it’s much easier and quicker for them to do so than those from abroad.”
Crucial pieces of community living are slowly emerging: a primary school is due to open on the Canary Wharf estate in September, with a second under negotiation.
“We’ve got people who live here who don’t [even] work here,” adds Khan, proudly; he says around a third of Wharf residents tumble out of bed to their desk in a nearby tower, the rest being students, retirees or working elsewhere.
Covid highlighted how the Wharf needed its own booster to bolster its health.
Canary Wharf Tube station had under 20,000 people tapping in for swathes of last summer, according to TfL figures, down from 80,000 in January 2020 when many of us had never heard of coronavirus. Even last week, the TfL figures show recovery had only gone up to around 45,000 taps.
Canary Wharf’s office spaces mostly stretch from half a million to one million square feet — problematic if the current trend for more hybrid working and smaller commercial spaces beds in.
The developer is thinking laterally, with plans to attract more fintech and tech firms to its newest spaces, and plans to build one of the largest commercial labs in Europe to lure a life sciences cluster to E14 — Canary Wharf is currently around 50% financial tenants. In total, Canary Wharf wants to build a total of 5600 flats.
The opening of the Elizabeth line should help with demand — linking Canary Wharf up to Heathrow could entice international home-hunters looking at London. Khan expects the first phase of Canary Wharf’s greening and preening plan to be complete by Christmas.
“This is not related to Covid — the residential [development] started eight years ago,” Khan adds. “But Covid has heightened everyone’s awareness of mental health and fitness, of the benefits of taking lunch and sitting by the water — people want more of that.
“They don’t want to just put their head down and work, work, work, they want to like the environment they’re in.”