Perusing a newsletter pinned up outside Embassy Gardens in Nine Elms at the weekend, I was intrigued to read about a sister development in Tower Hamlets. That's London City Island. How had I never heard of it before?
"We are creating 1,706 apartments across a series of 19-storey buildings. Residents will benefit from high design standards, a feature café, a private residents’ club and outstanding health facilities including a swimming pool, gym, boxing club and athletics. City Island will become a cultural epicentre for the local area and feature an arts centre, gallery, restaurants and shops on an island like site at the mouth of the River Lea."
Ah, right... the Leamouth peninsula. A thin tongue of land formed by a really sharp meander where the Lea enters the Thames - watch out for it on the opening credits of Eastenders. There have been residential plans for this area ever since the previous industrialtenants were summarily demolished about five years ago, but nothing's ever come to fruition. It's appallingly located for a start, bang opposite Canning Town station but requiring a very long walk to get there, or anywhere really. Why would anyone want to live on what's almost an island? Unless, well, unless isolation was the main selling point of living there.
City Island is a Ballymore project. They're building a "dramatic new cityscape" which they describe as a "mini-Manhattan", or in other words a lot of tall buildings. They claim it's "inspired by the landscape and heritage of the area", by which they mean the buildings will use colours that used to exist round here when there were shipyards. They plan "a swimming pool which will glow red", and so many gingko trees that "City Island will be a lush, almost exotic presence." And of course it's surrounded by water on almost all sides, which means it'll be all the more exclusive and easier to keep the riffraff out. Fancy buying in?
There's a website for potential purchasers, as you'd expect. A video leads viewers from central London to Leamouth where a swarm of coloured boxes land to create a stack of towers. We're offered a glimpse of the exclusive services that residents will be able to enjoy and take a glimpse inside a furnished apartment. City Island's location is showcased with a map that shows several local highlights, although most of Newham appears to be entirely attraction-free. The Driftwood Cafe and Fatboys Diner at Trinity Buoy Wharf appear high up the list, and righly so, although the photos fail to depict their less than luxurious surroundings. I laughed when I saw Chrisp Street Market in the top 10 - the photo shows a well-to-do woman buying vegetables, whereas the reality is considerably more downmarket. And there's a 144 page brochure you can flick through, either online or in glossy thick hardback form. A series of Shoreditch-style couples pose in effortlessly urban locations. The heritage, connectivity and creativity of the area are emphasised. Apartments are modern and spacious. Somebody can't spell "Trinity Bouy Wharf". By the end of the brochure you're being invited to pick your fixtures and fittings. And up front in chapter 1, Ballymore's chairman offers "A private island in London to call your own."
Because this isn't a development for local people. There's nothing for residents struggling on the nearby Aberfeldy Estate, nor will those on Newham's housing list be encouraged to move in. You discover this when you click on the tab to "register your interest". Five national options are presented, the first of which is a sales office in London UK. But none of the others is in Europe. There's Kuala Lumpur, there's Hong Kong, there's Singapore and there's Beijing, because Ballymore have made a very deliberate decision to target Far East purchasers. They started last weekend in Malaysia, with a three day exhibition at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Here are some photos Henry took as the moneyed of Malaysia dropped in to consider buying in downtown Tower Hamlets. And here's UK sales and marketing director Richard Oakes saying "We want to try something new and give Malaysians the opportunity to buy into this exciting project first." That's "open for sale exclusively to Malaysians", or "first dibs", according to The Edge Financial Daily. Best hope there are still some flats left by the time the international roadshow returns home.
You'd think, from all the glitzy hullabaloo, that the construction of City Island must be coming on nicely. Not so. As seen from passing DLR trains, the Leamouth peninsula is virtually entirely empty. Almost all of its 12 acres are blank and grassy, awaiting action - there are no cranes or diggers here. Only in two small areas, where the first two tower blocks are planned, have a few metal poles sprung up, sticking out of the ground at sapling height. Indeed there's nothing whatsoever on site to tempt investors to purchase, so the publicity material is entirely reliant on artists impressions, not current photographs, which saves airbrushing out the pylons.
The gaping chasm of Bow Creek is very evident in real life, which isn't always attractively high-tide-full as in the brochure. This natural barrier is why a footbridge will be needed to link the City Island development to transport nirvana at Canning Town. A footbridge has been planned here since 2003, but at least four different designs have fallenthrough, the last for being over-complex. The latest (simple) bridge will cross from the northern tip of the peninsula to Canning Town station, entering the upper concourse via the 'rotunda' entrance on the foreshore. That's good news if you want to catch a train, you'll have direct access, but bad news if you want to cross to Newham when the station's shut because the gate will be locked. Instead you'll have to walk to the southern end of the peninsula and from there to East India DLR, which is a fair way. Because City Island isn't an island, it's very much attached to the mainland. And it isn't really going to be part of the East End, more another enclave of privilege like the area round Nine Elms. Here we go again, London, building much-needed housing and then offering it up as an investment to overseas buyers. Will our next Mayor fight against, or lead the headlong rush for profit?