The face of London is about to change.
Dozens of buildings of 20 stories or more are under construction or planned along the south bank of the River Thames just upstream from Big Ben and the majestic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The development surge, fueled by wealthy foreigners looking for a safe place to invest, has spawned concern that the city is sacrificing its heritage for the sake of luxury homes.
“London is in danger of becoming a sort of Abu Dhabi, a sort of Hong Kong,” warned Nigel Barker of English Heritage, a body devoted to protecting the nation’s inheritance.
LONDON GROWS UP
It’s not that London lacks distinctive tall buildings: the 87-story Shard stabs the sky south of London Bridge, the 41-story Gherkin rises above the financial district, and soon there will be the 38-story Walkie Talkie, all of which earned their nicknames because of their unique shapes.
But critics are concerned about the sheer number of new projects — some 200 in various stages of consideration or construction, according to New London Architecture, an independent group studying development. Many of them are residential properties clustered along the south side of the Thames with views of the water and the architectural treasures across the river.
Unease about tall buildings in this city, which prides itself in having risen from the ashes of the Great Fire in 1666, isn’t new. Architectural purists like Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, have long warned against skyscrapers.
But economic forces following the 2008 economic crisis have rekindled the conflict between development and conservation. While the government seeks to rein in the financial services industry, London continues to attract foreign money and wealthy expatriates, straining the city’s Victorian-era infrastructure and widening the wealth gap.
The independent Smith Institute estimated in 2012 that investment in luxury homes was 5 billion pounds ($8.3 billion) a year. In the two years through June 2013, foreign nationals bought 69 percent of the newly built homes that sold for more than 1 million pounds in central London, according to an October report by Knight Frank, a London property adviser.
“It is a honeypot for global capital,” said Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture. “So we’re seeing pressures we’ve never experienced before. The movement of global capital is having a dramatic effect on how we plan the city.”