Tech City – No Tie Zone

Wednesday 9 May 2012

If Tech City is to succeed, Shoreditch must ensure it does not lose the character and cost-effectiveness that drew technology companies, hipsters and small businesses to the area in the first place.

That was one of the messages to arise from Tech City – No Tie Zone, a half day conference run by the NLA on the area so-branded by prime minister Tony Blair. TechHub CEO Elizabeth Varley kicked off by claiming that flexibility will be one of the key attributes sought by workspace-hunters in future, with technology entrepreneurs clustering around the same principles. ‘But we think it is important that the area does not lose that kind of character, with more chains moving into the area’, she said, threatening its ‘independent and bohemian’ spirit. The single biggest threat to the success of Tech City, she said, was rental prices. Other trends emerging included, not surprisingly, a strong need for very high broadband quality, plus a desire for more showers and bike storage. Varley suggested that the latter should be provided as standard.

Hackney’s head of regeneration delivery Andrew Sissons said the borough was not very interested in providing too much housing in the area, preferring instead to encourage more startups with affordable workspace, and using the Olympics as a good time to bring in investment through its Hackney House inward investment centre. Much of the investment coming into the area at the moment is from Europe, particularly from the French and Italians, said Stirling Ackroyd managing director Andrew Bridges. But although there may be a tail-off in funding residential from ‘the bank of mum and dad’ – who will have to move further east – Bridges said he was confident that demand in Shoreditch is ‘here to stay’. Challenges still lay in unlocking larger sites, however.

Derwent London is one developer with expertise in that area, with properties located across 17 London ‘villages’. Head of leasing Celine Thompson said many of its clients were seeking to differentiate to stay ahead of the game and lure the best of the talent pool. With Allford Hall Monaghan Morris it has developed the White Collar Factory idea, and the practice’s associate director Stephen Taylor showed how older buildings could be robust enough to accommodate changes in workplace, using such a ‘one-size-does-not-fit-all’ approach, but with a generous shell. ‘Volume and height, we are learning, are as important as square feet,’ he said.

Other speakers at the event included Hammerson’s assistant director of development Andrew Hilson, who detailed the scheme it is putting together at Bishopsgate Goodsyard, a rare case of a large site in single ownership on the edge of a global financial district. ‘Sites like that just don’t come along’, he said. The scheme includes the creation of a new urban park on top of the listed arches, with New York’s High Line providing the precedent. City surveyor Peter Bennett said Tech City was the latest example of clustering, while Squire and Partners partner Tim Gladstone said a ‘sculptural essence’ was one of the key factors in the practice’s design for the new, cylindrical Art’otel in Hoxton. Finally, prophet, madman and wanderer Steve Edge provided another moral for the area’s developers, in line with the quest to retain its colourful core spirit. ‘All the business you do with people, give back’, he said.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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