Stop Naming Your Soulless Luxury Flats After Food

We don't need another "Old Smokehouse" or "Distillery Tower" displacing London's actual food culture.

12 February 2019, 2:34pm

Photo via AdobeStock.

Picture London’s future skyline. Rows of glistening, stainless steel buildings rise high above the pavement, housing hundreds of identikit apartments that boast “great transport links to the City” from a “charming and convenient neighbourhood.” The property complex spans for miles, interrupted only by the occasional Tesco Metro or a four-storey Foxtons office. This JG Ballard-esque landscape may seem terrifying, but don't worry, because all the apartment blocks will be bestowed with comforting, food-based names: there’s The Pickle Dock, Rye Factory, The Old Bakehouse. Cute, and totally not dystopian!

Welcome to the London property market, where buyers are promised an enviable food culture of up-market fried chicken shops, artisanal bakeries, and the hippest Portuguese small plates restaurants, mere moments from their new home. Invest here, the estate agents say, and your property will continue to accrue value, thanks to the rich offering of restaurants and bars in the surrounding area.

Except there’s a problem: new residential builds often obliterate the exact food culture that they are attempting to monetise. In recent years, property developments have quite literally bulldozed a number of much loved food and drink establishments, soon to include the Elephant and Castle shopping centre in South London, which is home to numerous Latin American restaurants, cafes, and food stalls. In July last year, the local council voted in favour of demolishing the centre and announced it was to be replaced by 974 new homes, only 11 percent of which will be affordable housing.

Last week, a tweet circulated about Marine Ices, a London ice cream parlour founded in 1931 by the Mansi family. Twitter user Edwin Heathcote lamented the passing of the historic establishment, posting a photo of its former location—now a building site. A sign on the boards surrounding the site reads: “Marine Ices Apartments.”

Fortunately, in this instance, Marine Ices was able to relocate, rather than disappear to make way for a new property development. The Mansi family sold the name to ice cream company Criterion Ices in 2014, and the site to property developers Bellis Homes—who are now building flats there that cost between £640,000 to £1.5 million. While a new “Marine Ices” parlour run by Criterion Ices exists just a few metres down the road, many restaurants, cafes, and bars do not fare so well against property developers.

Paul Myatt, the new managing director of Marine Ices, agrees that the ice cream shop got lucky. “We consider this is a happy story for the London food scene as there is continuity for a much-loved ice cream brand and institution in the area where it has been for decades,” he tells me over email.

However, Myatt understands that rising rent costs jeopardise food businesses across the city: “[It’s] not just London rents [that are a problem], but also London rates pose an increasing challenge to artisanal food businesses who are operating on tight margins,” he explains. “To lose too many of them would upset the patchwork of shops that make up so many of London’s hidden gems.”

Many today cite the London property market as one of the biggest threats to the city’s food and drink scene. In 2018, commercial property values had risen by 166 percent since 2014, and a 2018 report from Cedar Dean Group found that 84 percent of restaurant owners would describe their rent as “high or unsustainable.” When a private property developer builds a new block of flats, it can cause the rent of surrounding establishments to rise, or even force existing businesses owners to sell up—as in the case of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. A worrying number of iconic London restaurants have been forced to close for these reasons.

To make matters worse, a trend seems to have emerged that sees these shiny new apartment complexes branded with food-related names. Not only are property developers pricing existing bars and restaurants out, they’re doing so with names like “Marine Ices Towers.” In addition to the former ice cream parlour, there’s Distillery Tower in Deptford, a 27-storey block of luxury flats in one of London’s poorest boroughs and Old Smokehouse, a luxury development in Hackney.

Also in Hackney, a new block of bespoke flats priced between £450,000 to £780,000 that stands on the site of a former Hackney bagel factory has indeed been named "The Bagel Factory." Developments like this only exacerbate the divide between rich and poor in the borough, forcing less affluent residents out of the area—all while hiding behind a cute, foodie name. Indeed, last year, a study found that the disposable income of residents in Hackney had risen more than anywhere else in Britain, despite 36 percent of the borough living in poverty. And as house prices rise, so too do those of commercial properties, meaning food businesses are hit as badly as poorer residents.

When most luxury flats in London end up either unsold or left empty thanks to overseas buyers, there’s something profoundly uncomfortable about property developers making money from names that denote a food culture and a community, when in reality, they couldn’t care less about either.

Please, spare us another “Sourdough House.” Maybe “Capitalist Tower” would be more accurate?