London’s Canary Wharf Takes Brunt of Real-Estate Pain | Kanebridge News
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London’s Canary Wharf Takes Brunt of Real-Estate Pain

Empty offices, remote working and corporate tenants fleeing to buzzier areas hit the 30-year-old business district

Thu, Jul 13, 2023 7:15amGrey Clock 4 min

LONDON—Three decades ago, London remade a derelict shipping yard at Canary Wharf into a forest of glass-and-concrete skyscrapers in a bid to mimic U.S. financial hubs.

Now the 128-acre banking district east of central London is suffering a problem also plaguing U.S. cities: emptying office buildings.

Last month, HSBC Holdings, the U.K.’s largest financial firm, said it was leaving its 1.1-million-square-foot headquarters, known as the HSBC Tower, for a smaller building in central London. The move followed a decision by law firm Clifford Chance to relocate to central London and major office-space downsizings by Barclays and Société Générale, among others.

Already, Canary Wharf and its surrounding area have an availability rate of 17.1%, roughly the size of an empty Empire State Building, compared with 10.7% for central London, according to data provided by UBS.

Bonds for Canary Wharf Group—the company that owns most of the buildings in the area—are trading at a deep discount, with yields over 16%. Moody’s lowered its credit rating to junk last month.

The troubles at Canary Wharf show how the rapid rise of remote work has reverberated unevenly across global property markets. While the hollowing out of skyscrapers has become a familiar theme in U.S. cities since the pandemic, Europe’s office market has held up relatively well, as workers have been far more eager to return to the office.

But London has some problems that are familiar to American real estate.

The return-to-office rate for London stood at 65% in February, a figure that put it between New York City, which stood at 49%, and Paris, which was at 85%, according to JLL, a property-services company.

Canary Wharf has caught the brunt of the problems in London’s office market.

Work-from-home and the cost of upgrading old office space to meet environmental regulations “puts Canary Wharf at a disadvantage,” said Zachary Gauge, head of European real-estate research at UBS.

Canary Wharf was a byproduct of a changing London economy in the 1980s. Transformations in global shipping decimated the city’s sprawling blue-collar dockyards, the West India Docks. Margaret Thatcher’s government deregulated the financial industry in a move known as the “big bang,” and banks were hungry for towers that were larger than low-slung London’s standard fare.

While it wasn’t a great property investment—the original developer went bankrupt—skyscrapers sprouted through the 1990s and Canary Wharf became a rare slice of Manhattan in London.

Canary Wharf attracted tenants from London’s traditional financial district, known as the City of London, which lies several miles west. It became a global byword for urban renewal. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made it his go-to analogy when promoting plans for Hudson Yards in the late 2000s.

“Canary Wharf beat out the City in the 1990s and 2000s because it catered to American firms who wanted high-rise buildings for high-skilled labor,” said Anthony Breach, an analyst at the Centre for Cities, a think tank.

A generation later, its towers are far from new, while sleek modern skyscrapers have shot up in the buzzier streets of the City and other parts of central London.

“High rates of work from home means that employers need to offer some desirability and vibrancy to bring workers back,” said Marie Dormeuil, an analyst at Green Street, a commercial-real-estate advisory firm.

Top-end commercial-property rents in London’s more fashionable West End rose 8% a year over the past three years, buoyed by hedge funds and private-equity firms piling into Georgian townhouses, while rents in Canary Wharf have mostly stayed the same, according to Green Street. Average office-space rent in Canary Wharf is $69 a square foot, compared with $95 in the City and more than $165 in the West End, according to data from Knight Frank, a U.K. real-estate brokerage.

With most of the district held by Canary Wharf Group—a joint venture between Qatar’s wealth fund and private-equity giant Brookfield—or by the Qatari fund directly, the development has space for long-term planning. “The Canary Wharf Group is very good at making its own weather,” said Tony Travers, who directs the London School of Economics’ London centre.

Shobi Khan, Canary Wharf Group’s chief executive, has outlined a plan for a “Canary Wharf 3.0” that would thrive off of residential rents, entertainment offerings and biotech.

The group plans to construct a 750,000-square-foot life-sciences centre, which it says will be the largest commercial lab in Europe. Rents in the sector can bring in a 70% premium compared with office space, according to Savills, a British real-estate-services company.

As for the residential sector, 3,500 people inhabit the group’s 2,200 units there, compared with zero tenants three years ago. Two thousand more units are under construction.

A combination of high-end retailers, restaurants and music and arts festivals have brought in extra revenue. Foot traffic on evenings and weekends is up by 50% compared with pre pandemic levels, according to data from the city’s transport authority.

But a full makeover will be a difficult task to pull off. Higher interest rates and lower revenue mean that Qatar and Brookfield may need to put up more cash to cover the costs of refurbishment and construction.

Another risk: Fewer financiers and lawyers could mean little demand for the stores and amenities. “You could see a downward spiral as people start to leave,” said Breach, the think tank analyst.

The developers will likely need to lure in lots of people like Justin Walker, a tax accountant who works in JPMorgan Chase’s office there.

“I hated how sterile Canary Wharf looked when I first got here,” he said, “But, the place has grown on me, it’s more residential now, and a lot more vibrant.”


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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker

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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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