The Daily Telegraph - Saturday, 24 February 2001 - Property - Page 9

Mixed development, mixed blessing

Shops, offices and a nightlife on your doorstep? Alas, says Ross Clark, the planner's dream is often far removed from the residents' reality

The typical Parisian house of the 1890s had a bordel in the basement, a bar on the ground floor, wealthy apartments on the first, middle-class apartments on the second and a starving artist or two in the garret. But that was before town planners dreamed up the idea of zoning.

Over the 20th century, the layouts of most cities in Europe and America became as neatly arranged as a pedant's sock draw. Factories always went in the zone marked "industry", shops and offices went in the zone marked "commerce" and houses went in the zone marked "residential".

It has taken 100 years to question the wisdom of such an approach. Do we really need to work, shop, socialise and sleep in different parts of a town? What zoning has tended to give us is lifeless housing estates with neither shops nor entertainment within walking distance, town centres that are abandoned to vandals after dark and industrial estates which have become wastelands because there are no residents to care about them.

But, hey presto, the town planners have suddenly done an about-turn. You don't just get housing developments these days, but vast complexes where flats happily co-exist alongside shops, offices, bars, hotels, skating rinks, massage parlours and all the other varied services that make up the necessities of everyday life.

Take Battersea Power Station, that great skulking monument to 1980s greed - and failure. More than 10 years after it failed to open as a theme park, the bulldozers are at the ready to turn it into 700 apartments, a 16-screen, 4,200-seat cinema, two hotels - one of 400 bedrooms, the other 700 - numerous shops, offices and bars, a railway station, a theatre and a "thrilling, high-gravity lift within one of the chimneys". Oh, and they are throwing in a circus. There is no mention of an international airport or Formula One motor-racing track in the bumph put out by developers Parkview, but there is probably still time to squeeze those in too.

"A whole world on your doorstep", as the developers are apt to call these things. But does the all-singing, all-dancing housing development actually work? Sales at the largest mixed-use development so far - the Mailbox, a former sorting office in Birmingham developed by Crosby Homes - suggest that there is no shortage of buyers hankering after life atop shops and bars, although they might change their minds when they discover who is going to be filling the offices. "Railtrack has signed up to move in," says David Fenton of Knight Frank.

One person expecting great things is Kim O'Brien, who last year queued in the rain to buy an apartment at Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, a Berkeley development which will combine 310 flats with two hotels, 20 bars and restaurants, 65 shops, an 11-screen cinema and a 26-lane bowling alley.

"I live in a period farmhouse with two acres, a tennis court and no neighbours. It's lovely, but I just don't want it any more," she says. "I want to live somewhere where there is always something going on. I can't cook, and I want to go to a different restaurant every night. But it is the shops that really caught my eye: Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. My farmhouse is worth 750,000 and the flat I'm buying is 250,000, so I'm going to be doing an awful lot of shopping."

It is hard to judge what sharing her life with shoppers, boozers and cinema-goers will mean for Ms O'Brien, for the simple reason that the commercial aspects of the development have not actually opened yet. In the way of these things, most of the apartments were sold when the shops and bars existed only in the fuzzy world of the artist's impression. In this world, only dewy-eyed Latin lovers are about of an evening and normal, Friday night city-centre goings-on - gangs singing in estuarine drawl, bleary-eyed yobs vomiting into litter bins and louts fighting at the taxi rank - simply do not exist.

The quality of life for residents of a mixed-use development depends much on the detailed design: at Gunwharf Quays the developers have put the physical barrier of a canal between residents and bar-goers; while at the Mailbox, the flats are insulated from the ground-floor shops and bars by four storeys of offices. "You can get to your flat through the shops, but if you want, you can drive into the car park and take a lift straight to your door," says Mr Fenton.

"To make a mixed development succeed requires a 24-hour concierge," says David Henry of FPDSavills, who is working on a similar kind of scheme, the Market Place, in that corner of Essex not hitherto known for highbrow nightlife, Romford. "Entrances have to be carefully planned so that people returning to their homes do not get mixed up with drinkers pouring out of bars."

Buyers also have to appreciate that when they sign up for a flat in a mixed-use development they are partly investing in the commercial market, which tends to take longer to establish and to have more ups and downs than the residential one. It is all very well for developers to entice buyers with pictures of upmarket shops and bars, but if upmarket tenants are not forthcoming, you may well end up with downmarket ones. Picture a burger bar instead of the planned Ralph Lauren outlet, and ask yourself: 'Do I still want to live here?'

Even mixed-use schemes that have eventually succeeded have turned out to have a very different hue from the original drawings. When the 368 apartments at Chelsea Harbour went on the market in 1986 for prices between 165,000 and 1.65 million, buyers may have been led to believe it was safe to chuck out the cookery book: there was to be a five-star hotel, four upmarket restaurants and several retail outlets on their doorsteps. Fifteen years on, the luxury of strolling downstairs for dinner has been lost.

"The restaurants did open," says Linda Beaney of Beaney Pearce, who sold some of the apartments originally and was so impressed that she bought one herself. "Ken Lo had one, as did Viscount Linley and Lord Lichfield, and Marco Pierre White and Michael Caine. But, one by one, they have all closed, and they and the retail units have all become showrooms for interior designers.

"The commercial side suffered very badly in the early years because the development included studio offices designed to facilitate start-up businesses, and many went under in the recession. But prices of the apartments, between 330,000 and 2 million, have kept up with the London market. What I like is that it is very peaceful."

Agreeable, then. But evidently not quite the dynamic, integrated environment that brochures of these mixed-use developments depict.

Recommended reading for the Homebuyer, by Ross Clark

The Telephone House Neighbours Association, Tunbridge Wells
The aims are to heighten peoples' awareness and concern for the development on Telephone House site, Church Road / York Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent.