National Geographic : 2019 Aug
push Parliament for rent control. Many admire his housing ambitions but point to mayoral lim- itations: The mayor sets strategic targets for the city, but the 33 municipal councils determine development within their respective borders. “Despite plan upon plan upon plan to build more housing, the truth is the rate of con- struction is nowhere near keeping up with the growth of the population,” says Tony Travers, who directs government studies at the London School of Economics. Jules Pipe, one of Khan’s 10 deputy mayors, says it’s essential to try. “If we exclude swaths of the public from being able to live and com- mute cheaply in the capital,” he says, “then the whole capital begins to fail on everything, from being kept clean to whether we have a shortage of doctors at the hospital.” CENTRAL LONDON is often viewed as an island for tourists and absentee Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes who spend just a few weeks a year at their multimillion-dollar properties. Jenkins, the former National Trust chairman, sees Lon- don as becoming more of an investment market than a place where people actually live. “They want to put their money into it and leave it, as if the city had become a bank,” he says. “ These towers of luxury apartments are simply blocks of gold.” Trevor Abrahmsohn, a real estate agent to the rich, says one of the side effects of being a global city is that it attracts wealth. The Qatari royal family owns more real estate in London than the British royal family, with a portfolio of quintessentially British icons that includes Har- rods and Claridge’s, most of the Shard, the former U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square (which will reopen as a luxury hotel), 20 percent of Heathrow Airport, and a portion of Canary Wharf. “When the Shah of Iran was ousted, his first port of call was London,” he says. “ When the Nigerians made money in oil, they bought in London. When the Indians made money on the Nigerians, they bought in London. When the Berlin Wall fell, the Russians bought, and now it’s the Chinese.” The Nine Elms project, which stretches over 500 acres along the Thames, is seen, fairly or unfairly, as a place filled with those stacks of bank accounts. It earned the name Dubai-on- Thames after the first round of apartments were sold mainly to foreign buyers, and advertises, among its many sumptuous amenities, the world’s first “sky pool,” which bridges the roof- tops of twin buildings of luxury flats. But the project also illuminates why Khan’s housing targets may be so hard to reach. The power plant, one of the world’s largest brick buildings, has long been an iconic landmark on the sky- line. “An industrial St. Paul’s,” Jenkins says, and possibly large enough to fit St. Paul’s inside. Pink Floyd featured the plant on an album cover, and several blockbuster films have used it as a backdrop. The plant closed in 1983. But fame also saved it from—or prevented, if you prefer—demolition, locking in the huge cost of refurbishing it. Multiple developers came and went. In 2012 a Malaysian consortium took over the nearly $12 billion project, which includes remaking the plant into commercial and resi- dential space and restoring its four chimneys. The developers also contributed nearly $400 million to the $1.3 billion construction of two new Tube stations, improving access to the area. The investment won them a reduction in the number of affordable housing units that had been slated. Ravi Govindia, leader of the Wandsworth bor- ough council, which approved the project, says the infrastructure and restoration more than compensated. “Every development has a finite contribution it can give to the improvement of public services,” he says. “Affordable housing is one component.” The development also will contain two riverside piers, two primary schools, two health centers, improved bicycle paths, and Linear Park, which is styled after New York’s High Line and runs like a “green spine” through the entire district. “The greatest challenge in any urban setting is how do you renew an area and provide the things 138 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Central London is increasingly viewed as a place only for tourists and absentee Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes.