BARRATT HOLMES, our housing correspondent, goes to the top of a Croydon landmark and finds some merit in conversions
Even on a day when a winter storm is scudding through just above our heads, from the 22nd floor roof garden of Leon House you can get a real feel for the geography that made Croydon the place it is today. Looking northwards, along the line of the High Street, where the traffic is heading towards central London, there’s a true sense of the serpentine winding of a river valley, with gentle slopes either side.
In the distance, but from this height still visible even through the November sleet and low cloud, there is The Shard, a towering edifice to corporate development and as yet unfulfilled profits.
The owners, billionaires based in the Gulf states, refuse to discuss the details, but six years after London’s tallest tower was finished, fewer than 10 of the Shard’s 72 habitable floors are understood to be in use, as a combination of high prices and the global economic situation discouraged buyers.
Fifty years ago, Leon House was what property developers even then liked to describe as an “exciting” building, one of Croydon’s tallest and built in a 1960s boom when local councillors, embracing the town’s new status as part of a “Greater London”, were seeking to rival The City as a place for businesses to base their offices.
Designed by architects Tribich, Liefer & Starkin (the “Leon” name is taken from one of the architects’ fathers), it was one of the few tower blocks to be allowed south of the A232’s Flyover, which was still being built when Leon House was constructed.
Magisterially, it stands as a sentinel above the modest two- and three-storey Victorian and Edwardian shop buildings of the suburban High Street below.
Front and back, it is largely glass. Its stone-like concrete flanks are so pale in colour that they reflect the changing light of the shimmering sun throughout the year. It gives Leon House something resembling the look of the UN building in New York. Modernist and classy.
John Grindrod, the writer who grew up in Croydon, in his book Concretopia, described the town centre thus: “Croydon makes sense as a town to be approached by jetpack, where paranoid androids hum early Human League songs in the underpasses and flying saucers land on top of shopping centres.” Leon House is one of the futuristic buildings that Grindrod surely had in mind.
For half a century, Leon House served its purpose well, an office base for a range of businesses. But a refurbishment to bring its facilities into the 21st Century was probably too costly for its then owners, who at the start of this decade opted to sell to developers who were eager to exploit a planning “opportunity”: PD, or “permitted development”.
The Tory Government under David Cameron, unable or unwilling to build thousands of homes for social rent, did their usual trick of privatising the process and offering their mates in industry the chance to turn a (relatively) quick profit. Turn excess office space into flats, they said. No matter how small they might be. Planning permission won’t be necessary, they said. Use PD, they said.
Here in Croydon, we are seeing the end-result of that cheapskates’ charter in almost every office block that is surrounded in scaffolding and draped in nylon webbing, as developers rushed to stuff as many over-priced micro-flats as they could into some of the town centre’s less-loved concrete and glass edifices.
More than 130 conversion schemes have been allowed under PD in Croydon since 2012, one of the highest in all London boroughs. But it was something which the Labour council put a stop to in 2014 once they were elected. “The slums of the future,” one Labour councillor, Sean Fitzsimons, warned.
Some converted office blocks, further along that slithering serpentine road towards London, at West Croydon, are notorious for having one-bed “luxury apartments” that are smaller than the de minimus size required under planning regulations (50sq m, since you ask). Under PD, the government ensured that there was never a need to seek or be granted planning permission.
Some are still being developed, the developers having “got in” before the Labour council veto’d the idea in Croydon. As you walk along South End, with Leon House looming over you, there among the closed restaurants and empty bank buildings, there’s even a showroom for another office-to-resi scheme, one in which the finished, furnished flats will offer unprecendented views of… the Croydon Flyover. The ex-office block is nestled right alongside the high-flying A232. For the developer involved, it is at least their third project carried out in Croydon with the aid of PD.
But they don’t all have to be like that, as Leon House shows.
Leon House is owned by Cumberland Developments Ltd, a special purpose vehicle set up by FI Real Estates Management, who acquired the building – together with its PD status – in 2016. Unlike some office-to-resi conversions of landmark buildings, such as the similar vintage Nestlé Tower just the other side of the Flyover, FIREM chose not to alter the look or integrity of Leon House. That heritage has become something of a sales feature for them.
“Leon House has been a part of Croydon’s skyline for nearly 50 years, its iconic status has stood the test of time and it is our team’s honour to have been part of it conservation and restoration,” FIREM say, with some well-earned pride.
As you approach Leon House on foot, it still has the look and feel of an office block, or perhaps a 5-star hotel as you enter the marbled reception area through a revolving door. For the residents of more than 60 flats, this is what they can now call home. Some 100 of the building’s 263 one- and two-bed apartments had already been sold before last Thursday’s official launch reception.
Behind the reception desk is a concierge, as well as a piece of 1960s brutalist architectural art work, concrete in abstract all the way up a structural pillar, and stretching on throughout the building. It is the work of renowned sculptor William Mitchell, and had been specially commissioned when the building was designed. Yet the office building’s management 20 years ago or so decided to hide it behind wooden boards. It was only rediscovered when the FIREM’s demolition teams moved in to start the conversion work.
“We were pretty surprised when we began the refurbishment works on site to discover this huge artwork,” Mark Adams, from FIREM, said.
“We asked the demolition team to be careful with it… demolition teams aren’t usually known for working delicately.”
So now the new residents of Leon House have a piece of bespoke art in their home, to go along with the co-working area in the entrance lobby, the dining area on the 22nd floor (available for private parties by arrangement with the concierge) and the roof top terrace (or “Sky Garden”).
As you’d expect, this all comes at a price: from £338,000 for the one-bedroom apartments and from £417,000 for the two-bedroom apartments. High enough to provide a form of dizzying vertigo without even travelling up the swift and silent lifts to the top floor. On top of that, residents need to budget for annual service charges of between £1,200 and £1,500.
In our brief conversation, Adams must have used the word “responsible”, in the context of FIREM’s work and the building, at least half a dozen times. What they have done with housing association Optivo fits that description: all the flats on the first four floors have been made available to the housing association for shared ownership (buy 25 per cent for around £110,000).
But the residents in these properties have the same rights and access as all others – there’s no “Poor Doors” in Leon House.
The Help To Buy scheme is also available on flats higher up the building, allowing potential buyers to secure their new home with a 5 per cent deposit and with the Government effectively providing a 40 per cent loan on the property value.
Leon House’s apartments all exceed the Mayor of London’s minimum size requirements – its one-bed flats are at least 52sq m, the two-bed apartments 72sq m.
Each flat comes furnished with high-spec kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms, and floor-to-ceiling double-glazed windows that provide views that never fail to fascinate.
But this is where the sales pitch might not meet reality. As tastefully furnished as the apartments are, they don’t feel quite, well… homely. The beige carpet and white walls of the corridors between the apartments have all the feel of an international hotel. You half-expect to see trays left outside doors for room service to clear away. While staying in a luxury hotel has its appeal, that might wear thin if living in that style of accommodation permanently.
The idea that the two-bed flats might in some way be adequate for a family home also seems a bit of a stretch, too. The amenity space in the “Sky Garden” will probably be great for sipping chilled Chablis with friends in the summer, but the idea of toddlers, or older kids, going up there to have a kickaround as they might do in a more down-to-earth house seems unlikely.
When we spoke with Adams, he assured us that all the flats sold so far had been to people who would be living in Leon House, and that none had been bought by overseas property investors, which of itself is encouraging. Though while the conversion work has helped to give new life and purpose to an important landmark building, the near-half-a-million price tag on the flats means Leon House will do little to help the plight of the homeless in Croydon.
Such reservations are clearly not shared by those who have already moved in to their new homes in Leon House, and despite what Adams describes as “challenging” projections for the housing market, FIREM have plans to build three more blocks, including more than 300 homes, alongside their landmark building between Edridge Road and the High Street in what they call “the Leon Quarter”.
Officiating at Leon House’s formal unveiling and opening at the developers’ launch party last Thursday was Croydon councillor Toni Letts. In a press release issued on behalf of FIREM, Letts told the invited guests, “Leon House rises tall and proud and is providing high-quality stunning homes each with amazing space.
“The innovative approach throughout the tower gives open space for the residents to meet and children to play. Having met some of the residents who are thrilled with their new home, I congratulate FI Real Estate Management for creating homes with great views whether you are looking out across the town centre or towards the amazing green fields and woods in the south of the borough.”
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