From a no-go area to the “borough of Olympics”
The renaissance of Stratford is quite the classic ugly-duckling-turned-beautiful-swan story, but the ghost of its derelict past haunts this London outcast and puts a question mark on its image. A lot of noses turn up at the mere mention of this east London neighbourhood. Granted, the “borough of Olympics” will probably never match the opulence of Chelsea and Mayfair, but Stratford,contrary to popular belief, is no far-off land miles away from the capital. It boasts Europe’s biggest supermall, and one day soon it might just hold its own compared with a shopping mecca like Oxford Street.
As it happens, if you hop on the central line from Oxford Circus station, it will take you just 19 minutes to get to Stratford. It’s sandwiched between the upcoming artists’ borough of Hackney and the Lee Valley. It has an interesting mix of people: Cockneys, Indians, Bangladeshis, Chinese and more call this neighbourhood home. (Also, Royal Mail has given Stratford the E20 postcode, which is currently used by the fictional district of Walford in EastEnders.)
From the day London was chosen to host the Olympics, swarms of bulldozers and cranes rolled in to this forlorn area to give it a multi-million pound makeover. Gone are the days where graffiti-strewn-walls and contaminated industrial waste signposted the area. The new and improved Stratford is now inundated with massive infrastructure projects.
But will the area live up to hype and return your investment in property?
The bittersweet Olympic effect
The Olympics have of course been game-changing for the area. Stratford is now the “gateway to the Olympics” with the construction of the 500-acre Olympic Park, and the £22m ArcelorMittal Orbit, Britain’s largest sculpture. It has every prospect of becoming a tourist hotspot.
But what about property in Stratford?
“We didn’t have a Stratford branch until October 2011 but the Olympics were a compelling reason to open one in the area,” says Alex Leigh, sales manager, Foxtons’ Stratford branch.
Leigh says that Stratford will enjoy the “legacy benefits” of the Olympics, which makes it a safe haven for investors to put their money.
“While some feel that the Olympics is a fool proof investment which can’t go wrong, others want to bask in the glory that the Olympics will bring to the area. And some hope to rake in some quick profits out of short-term letting,” he says.
- For the latest on Games, check out our dedicated section: London 2012 Olympics
While one might expect investors in Stratford to be laughing all the way to the bank, things aren’t quite that simple. The economic downturn and the impending eurozone crisis haven’t spared the area.
“The announcement of Olympics coming to Stratford cheered prices and triggered a deluge of investment between 2006 and early 2008, but the prices plateaued thereafter,” says Jon Di-Stefani, chief executive of Telford Homes.
Research by Lloyds TSB shows that people living in Stratford have seen property price rises of only 13 per cent between 2005 and 2010, less than half the average increase across east London.
PROPERTY PRICES NEAR THE OLYMPIC PARK:
– Average prices in the 14 postal districts located close to the Olympic Park have risen by over a quarter (26 per cent) since July 2005.
– Four out of the 14 postal districts near Olympic Park saw house prices rise by more than the average for London (36 per cent).
– House prices in the Olympic Park areas have bounced back strongly from the downturn in the housing market, rising by 13 per cent between April 2009 and April 2010.
– The average house price among the postal districts near Olympic Park is £262,953.
– The least expensive postal district is Plaistow with an average house price of £196,426, followed by East Ham (£203,500) and Leyton (£209,769).
Source: Lloyds TSB
But the other gift that the Olympics has given Stratford is the blizzard of homes. The master plan is to provide 12,000 new homes in the areas. Also, once the Games are over, the park will undergo a £147m refurb, bringing to the market more than 2,800 new rental homes.
Current asking prices in Stratford
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Glamour and glitz of Westfield Stratford City
Another star in the Stratford skyline is the Aussie supermall Westfield Straford City. The £1.45bn complex houses more than 300 stores, 70 restaurants, a 14-screen cinema, three hotels, a bowling alley and the UK’s largest casino.
The mall opened its door with Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger shimmying away to entertain the enormous crowds, while Pixie Geldof and Nick Grimshaw welcomed Boris Johnson to cut the ribbon.
Speaking at the launch, Boris said: “Together with the Olympic investment, this [Westfield Stratford City] has triggered regeneration in this part of London in a way not seen since the middle ages. With every Big Mac munched and with every pair of Levis jeans bought, it means more jobs for the people of east London, and more growth for the London economy.”
Some four million shoppers spent more than £20m within weeks of the supermall opening.
The mall also attracts celebrity razzmatazz every other day. Justin Bieber serenaded Christmas shoppers when he came to switch on Christmas lights in the mall last year, and Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner posed for the shutterbugs at the premiere of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 only recently.
“Westfield Stratford [City] has by far been the biggest ego boost that Stratford could ever get. It makes a strong USP that appeals to every prospective property buyer or tenant that we get,” says Leigh.
Not only this, at least 70 per cent of the 10 million visitors heading for the Olympic park will press their noses against the enormous shop front of all brands, from Primark to Omega.
Swift transport links
If you still hold a pre-conceived notion that getting to Stratford means either taking a rickety tube or swimming through marshlands, you, my friend, are out-of-date.
There are now brand new carriages that connect the Olympic gateway to almost every nook and corner of London, with the nine transport lines including the Central Line, Jubilee Line and National Express East Anglia.
Some 400 metres from the tube station is the multi-level £210m Stratford International station which has a Eurostar terminal that will link Stratford and St Pancras with a high-speed train Javelin shuttle.
What’s more, a charity called Thames21 has signed up over 4,000 volunteers to help in the clean up of River Lee so that visitors can walk or cycle to the Olympic Park.
Di-Stefani of Telford Homes thinks that the transport overhaul has put Stratford on the map and people are warming up to the idea of settling here. “Stratford’s new transport links barely fail to impress anyone.
“The new routes and the modern infrastructure have turned Stratford from a no-go area to a fast-devloping property hotspot. With Westfield on one end and the accessibility to the West End on the other, people get the best of both worlds,” he says.
Hip Cultural Quarters
Stratford has a very unassuming cultural hustle and bustle, despite all the bad press around the area’s character.
Take the Stratford Circus for example: a kaleidoscope of professional theatre, music, comedy and dance, which will receive £40,759 of funding in 2011/2012.
The artistic hub recently made headlines for staging a new play “Guantanamo Boy”, focusing on the US detention camp and engaging local Muslims in political debate.
“Stratford wanted to start making emotionally challenging theatre for a teenage audience and we are in east London with a lot of Asian resonance,” said director Dominic Hingorani.
The other theatre that flies the flag of Stratford’s bohemian culture is Theatre Royal Stratford East. The theatre often holds an open stage project where the audience is asked to pick a play or a pantomime that they would like to see on stage.
Not only this, Stratford Rising, a body appointed to raise the profile of Stratford in the eyes of London, organizes events to encourage community engagement in the area. Only yesterday, the body arranged a fashion show, a Victorian puppet show and a cinema karaoke.
Stratford Rising estimates that Stratford’s cultural quarters generate “a combined annual turnover in excess of £9m per annum, provide work and training opportunities for over 400 artists and engage with over 300,000 participants.”
Downhill after the Olympics?
Amid all the backslapping and applauding, the elephant in the room is whether Stratford will turn into a ghost town after the Games are over.
Previous host cities like Athens and Sydney failed to keep up the Olympic legacy with their respective stadia decaying, with no tenants, and the Olympic venues becoming a non-entity on tourists’ radar.
Will London’s revered Olympic glory follow suit?
“Of course not,” says Stuart Corbyn, chairman of Qatari Diar Delancey East Village Operations, which will take over 2,818 flats sprawling over the 70 acres of the Athletes Village in the Olympic Park.
“This is London’s Olympic legacy we’re talking about, everyone wants a slice of it. The East Village at the doorstep of the park will prove to be a distinctive entity in east London surrounded by world-class sports venues, enviable shopping facilities and excellent transport links.
“Residents moving into this new neighbourhood will enjoy living in one of the capital’s best-connected areas. Canary Wharf can be reached in 12 minutes, the West End in 20 minutes and St Pancras International in just six minutes – residents can whiz to Paris and beyond. For the frequent international traveller, all London airports can be reached within the hour,” he adds.
You may recall that back in September Boris wasn’t a happy bunny when the BBC decided against moving the EastEnders production team into the Olympic Park’s media centre.
“There was the chance for the BBC to show genuine commitment to the East End – an area it has harvested for audiences for decades. I’m astonished that the boss class don’t see the obvious advantages of rooting a popular drama in an area it claims to portray,” said an angry Boris.
But things have changed since then.
The Olympic Park Legacy Company is running from pillar to post to get tenants to secure the Olympic Park’s future. With less than 200 days to go until the opening ceremony, the company has secured post-Games operators for six out of the Park’s eight permanent venues.
Surely that will make Stratford hot property and sought-after from all angles?
Stephanie McMahon, director for research, Jones Lang LaSalle disagrees. “Surely the Olympics has brought laurels to Stratford that has put the area on the map, but I doubt there will be a day when people would prefer staying in Stratford than the other parts of east London.”
McMahon thinks that chances that big companies open their headquarters in the area too will be a tall order.
“It’s important to note that Stratford is still on the road to regeneration. Although on the fast lane, there will be a time lag for it to be the next Canary Wharf. Corporate companies would rather look at the skyscrapers that the London skyline is likely to have in the next couple of years,” she adds.
So will Stratford go back to being a dodgy investment area after the Olympics? Surely not.
Corbyn thinks that Stratford will experience a surge in demand for residential and commercial properties even after the Olympics are over.
“Westfield Stratford [City], the excellent transport links and the paradigm shift in Stratford’s image won’t all disappear over night. Stratford is here to stay,” he says.
Let’s hope so.