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Moneymaking Machines #8: Marylebone Square

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The advertisement was one of those inescapable ones inserted into a news website. The one, two and three bedroom dwellings were called “suites” because the word flats must have had connotations of something too downmarket, the word condominiums something too American and apartments having connotations of both. Whatever these suites are, they were refined, elegant and intuitively designed. I don’t know what intuitively designed is supposed to mean, especially since, in the case of buildings, nonintuitive can refer to something designed by solid procedures and methods – formalist or even classical if you like – while counterintuitive can mean something unexpectedly beneficial. Maybe intuitive design is some kind of pushback against intelligent design.

The body of the brochure calls them luxury apartments so I’ll go with that. There are 54 of them. Planning permission negotiations (conducted by consultants known as planning permission negotiators) in “sensitive” areas such as this one will involve lengthy discussions with local municipality planning permission officers, local history officers and conservation officers, as well as a public meeting at which objections will be voiced and duly taken into consideration. Hurley Palmer Flatt were the PR, branding, content and communications consultants for the £106 mil. project. Despite the negotiations, there’s still good returns on investment to be had with residential developments that are smaller, quicker and easier to build, and less risky than some Manhattan superslender moneymaking machine. This lengthy process is to guarantee that the needs of the local residents will be taken into account even though those residential units will be marketed towards and invariably sold to Middle Eastern and Far Eastern buyers.

The website for London’s new Marylebone Square development is in both English and Chinese, although the name Marylebone doesn’t translate into Chinese. The best that can be done is to throw some characters with similar sounds at it and add the word quangchang which is the usual translation of the word “square” in cases like this and giving us 玛丽波恩广场. Welcome to ma-li-bo-en-guang-chang.

Location

The project is new build but the website tells us the history of this most historic of sites in this most historic of cities. It was an historic car park at least between 2010 and 2018 (left, below), with siteworks beginning around 2018. The site is between Cramer Street to the east and Marylebone Station to the north east, Aybrook Street to the west and Baker Street further west, and the beginnings of Regent’s Park top right and Regent Street going down. Location location. The website says the site was the only piece of land not claimed by either the Portman Estate to the west or the Howard de Walden Estate to the east. The implication is until now, that is, but we’re left in the dark as to why. Perhaps it’s best not dig too deep. I doubt there was free parking on the site between the invention of the internal combustion engine and 2018 when construction began. Speaking of parking, the website and brochure make no mention of it but, if you look closely to the south (far) end of the building, you can see what looks like a vehicle entrance that might lead to a ground floor delivery bay for the shops, and farther down to an underground car park but I doubt it.

Excavating and shoring a basement during construction in this residential neighborhood would have been a logistical nightmare but not an unsurmountable one. It probably just wasn’t worth the grief. I’m guessing the first, second and third floors at the southern end of the building are an above ground car park as the typical floor plans for this part of the building contain no suites and has a different facade treatment. Here it is. It’s unfortunate the sunny end of the site had the neighbors least likely to object to an overground car park. I’m assuming local residents objected more to the additional noise and traffic obstructions caused by a protracted construction period than they did to looking at an overground car park in this historic area.

Given that negative incentive, the overground car park would have been pure economic expedience with a car park taking up the area equivalent to six three-bedroom apartments and six two-bedroom apartments. It’s a ballpark estimate but, in terms of sale price, this is at least £60 mil. worth of real estate. An area 40 metres x 40 metres square over three split levels and two-way ramp access could park 142 cars – which is more than enough and costs relatively little to build. For all its centrality and convenience, this development can’t not have car parking despite being in London’s Congestion Charge Zone that requires drivers to pay £15 per car journey inside the area during the hours of 07:00-18:00 Monday-Friday, 12:00-18:00 Saturday-Sunday and public holidays. Residents have a 90% discount but subject to conditions that overseas purchasers won’t be fretting too much over.

In general, it’s a nice corner of London and, apart from the occasional restaurant or pub and The Conran Shop on Marylebone High Street, isn’t much frequented by people outside the area. The site is unusual in being bounded by streets on all sides but the width of those streets isn’t really apparent from the renders above.

These gallery images show the four corners of the development. I hope nobody’s buying off-plan on the basis of the splash page image. Window-to-window distances across all four bounding streets are around ten metres. Buyers from parts of Guangzhou, Shenzen or even parts of Barcelona and London would have no problem with that.

Architecture

The building is said to be Georgian in style which, in this context, means tall and narrow windows stacked. The most distinctive “signature” feature is a “lantern” frieze around the lower penthouse setbacks/terraces, and replicated in metal for the balconies above and below. As far as I can make out, a lantern frieze is a type of frieze sometimes seen on a certain kind of lantern.

The most distinctive indoor feature is the central access atrium. I’ve often advocated dual aspect apartments that have an overlooked access corridor, especially when overlooked by a kitchen window. The feel of dual aspect and cross ventilation would be especially attractive to Chinese purchasers. The open kitchens wouldn’t be, but one mitigating factor could be the bridges between the open access corridor and the front door, although Chinese owners might prefer to personalize these with shoe racks instead of pot plants.

Floorplans

The floorpans are pretty much standard issue. The kitchen windows are good and hopefully operable. The one bedroom unit has sacriuficed the kitchen to provide a study facing the atrium. Having bedrooms face the atrium must have been deemed trashy and unacceptable, even though it was good enough for the affordable (shared equity) component of Foster & Partner’s Albion Riverside development circa 2003. The floorpans of the these typical units are okay, although I can see signs of a struggle. Then 2-Bedroom and the 3-bedroom Type A have no wall suitable for watching a flatscreen. The 3-bedroom Type B have the master bedroom in the prime corner positions that can look along the street rather than miserably across it like the living rooms. Balconies and Georgian style aren’t a happy mix but, all units use the living room as circulation, leaving little room for furniture. Three of these layouts below take from the living rooms to give to the bedrooms, forcing the dining table to the front. Having the flatscreen away from the window makes sense but only if it can be seen. At either end of the kitchen of the one-bedroom unit are what look like doors to close it off (but not the refrigerator). The guest bathroom in the one-bedroom unit also has a shower that only makes sense if the study is used as a second bedroom. In the 2-bedroom layout, the study has shared access to a bathroom and the guest w/c has no shower. In fact, no other guest w/c does. The study areas therefore have the potential to be used as bedrooms. The penthouses have dedicated study areas only when there are difficult corners to fill.

The penthouse layouts are less successful, perhaps because long shallow plans invariably waste much area on circulation and produce living areas that are disproportionately small and cramped for their area, as is the case of the unit on the left, below. The unit in the middle is the best of the lot and, if I had to choose, my favorite. Perhaps it’s the most intuitive? The large penthouse on the right, below, has two entrances and a wealthy Middle Eastern buyer would appreciate being able to use the large corner reception room as a majilis while the family and women can enter and leave via the other entrance and the maid can cook and serve food unseen.

For 279 sq.m (3,000 sq.ft), this next layout doesn’t have that many different places to be. The elevator is curious. If it’s glass then it’s not about having a discreet means of entry. It does however open onto what looks like a caterer’s kitchen. This layout shows just how difficult it is to fill the inner side of a long apartment, even when it’s on the top floor and facing an atrium. Roughly one third is living space, one third bedrooms, and the other third space that’s not used for any length of time or significant purpose.

Interiors

I won’t mention the Open Layouts Inspired by Classic Details. At the end of this post are the brochure with all the information and including floor plans of the typical units and the penthouses. So then. It’s crunch time. How much? The apartment below left is an 82 sq.m (893 sq.ft) east aspect one-bedroom apartment currently (February 2024) being marketed at £3.9 mil. (US$4.9 mil.) The 2-bed will cost you £5.2 mil. (US$6.5 mil.) for one on the east side, or an even £6 mil. (US$7.6 mil.) for one facing west. The west facing one is one floor higher but still, it seems a huge price difference for some evening light and a slightly more salubrious view.

But hang on a minute! Earlier, I quoted the marketing, PR, “content” and communications company as saying the project was a £106 mil. project. I’m assuming a marketing, PR, “content” and communications company wouldn’t mix things up, do I’m assuming £106 mil is the construction cost. Now, this development has 54 apartments spread over six levels and the smallest of them sells at almost £4 mil. Even if all apartments were the same size and area, this is already £108 mil. but we know that there are two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments, as well as penthouses three or four times the size and that’ll sell for much much more. The retail space is worth something to somebody. I’d need a spreadsheet with square meterage and going prices of all apartments to get a more accurate idea but, as a general rule a building like this returns its construction cost plus at least 200% on top of that unless times are bad and, for the intended market, they are probably not. Given the unusual land ownership history of the site, a visit to HM Land Registry (https://www.gov.uk/search-property-information-land-registry) should reveal who paid how much and to whom for the land or, even in this day and age, the rights to build on it.

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