Canary Wharf Is Trying to Make a Comeback

Maddalena Riccardi has been the manager of ice cream parlor Badiani Gelato’s two Canary Wharf shops since February 2020. Located at the heart of East London’s business district, the chain pivoted to deliveries to make ends meet during the lockdowns. In the summer of last year, only a scant client base of city workers and tourists were getting their gelato fix at the stores.


“After the pandemic, we weren’t sure if footfall would pick up again, but we can’t believe how busy it is—we think it’s to do with the proximity to the tube station, especially with the new Elizabeth Line,” she says. Sales at Badiani’s have doubled since the start of the summer season, with office workers and residents in particular visiting its Wood Wharf site.


According to data from Transport for London (TfL), midweek passengers arriving at London’s Canary Wharf have almost doubled in the past year. On June 15, 2022, it recorded 52,178 taps out, compared to 26,004 on the same date in 2021. However, trips to the docklands financial hub are still significantly lower than prepandemic, when there were often over 80,000 taps out per day during the week. This tallies with the wider trend of low employee presence in London’s offices.


What business leaders and landlords feared has come to pass. Even as easing restrictions have enabled workers to return to the office, they haven’t come back. While CEOs at large companies like Netflix, Goldman Sachs, Tesla, and UK retail group Frasers have all announced that full-time, in-person attendance will be compulsory, most companies are still on the fence and haven’t issued clear directives on attendance for workers.


David Cocchiara, CEO of data-led workplace management platform OfficeSpace, says that its London clients, which include ecommerce platform Made, Condé Nast (WIRED’s publisher), financial research company Third Bridge, and law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, show workspaces are still only at around 20 to 35 percent capacity. “It is slowly increasing, but areas like Canary Wharf are going to have to weather this experimentation phase to settle on what spaces they need and how many people are going to be coming back. People aren’t going to want to have space for space’s sake now,” says Cocchiara.


Despite attempts to entice workers back with office plants, personalized temperature settings, and free food, longstanding business districts that rely solely on white collar workers are in a tight spot. Canary Wharf’s struggle is playing out in central business districts around the world.


In San Francisco’s downtown area, office work accounted for 72 percent of the city’s GDP before the pandemic, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. With downtown firms quick to embrace remote work, local bars, restaurants, and shops are on their knees. The area is still the priciest place to live in the US, and elevated pandemic rent hikes haven’t yet dropped. Filling the 20.4 million square feet of vacant office space available at the end of Q1 2022, according to CBRE, is going to require some serious legwork.


Meanwhile, Europe’s largest business district, La Défense in Paris, which has double the office space of Canary Wharf, is working to evolve its model. In March, its CEO Pierre-Yves Guice announced the need to reflect the paradigm shift of hybrid working, and will be adding new residential buildings, hotels, restaurants, and urban parks to the space.


Home to 150 office tenants, the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf is further ahead than both these other business districts in this period of experimentation, most notably in the types of tenants it accepts. Its primary developer, The Canary Wharf Group (CWG), is adding 5 million square feet of new space, which is mostly made up of more compact buildings with specialized design, targeting smaller companies and those in the tech and life sciences sectors.


CWG’s financial results from mid-2021 show that the area’s ratio of financial and nonfinancial tenants is 55:45, compared to 70:30 a decade ago, and recent acquisitions are likely to push this balance further away from big banking. CWG has partnered with the specialist developer Kadans Science Partner to build a 22-story life sciences cluster that will be the largest commercial lab in Europe.


Set to open in 2026, the project will add to the area’s existing biotech presence, which includes the UK health regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and Genomics England, which moved its HQ to One Canada Square in the autumn. York St. John University is relocating from its central London campus to the Republic building on East India Dock on the Isle of Dogs, joining the University of the West of Scotland and Anglia Ruskin University.


This is one facet of its efforts to shake out the staid, corporate image and blend different industries in one hub. Many of the large employers Canary Wharf is known for are sticking around or joining for the first time amid a bumper year for new office leases in London. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development EBRD will swap Exchange Square in the City to Canary Wharf, and US banking giant Citi is spending £100 million to revamp the 200-meter tower it bought as its EMEA headquarters in 2019. Rather than knock it down, Citi decided to refurbish it to use 20 percent less electricity and water consumption, and to have more flexible work and collaboration spaces.


UK founded fintech company Revolut has had offices on the fourth floor of the Columbus Building in Westferry Circus since mid-2018, and has maintained this space to give employees the flexibility to work from home, the office, or both. “Staff have expressed their desire to balance the convenience of home with the camaraderie of the office, and 56 percent of our staff work from home between two and four times a week,” says Alexandra Loi, global head of HR at Revolut. She explains that the office is at a monthly occupancy of 20 percent, and for those who do come in, there are regular team events.


The CEO of Gaucho Martin Williams saw an increase in local residents and visitors at the restaurant’s Canary Wharf branch during the pandemic, which compensated for fewer workers dining out. By February, Williams noticed a marked shift when corporate employees returned for two to three days a week, and maximized their time on the island with team lunches and dinners. “Although office capacities have shrunk by half, we’re doing well,” he says. 


The company will open M Restaurant in July, a 10,000-square-foot space in the Newfoundland building with a private members club, two private dining rooms, and weekend brunch aimed at diners from London, Essex, and Kent. “The 680 apartments above M are short- and medium-term rentals and have been full for the last year, so we’ll do room service for them, and delivery for local residents, too,” he says. “It gives me confidence that you’re not solely reliant on banks and financial institutions to prop up your business—it just needs to be a more multilayered offering.”


Other restaurateurs clearly have faith in the area’s rise from the ashes. Single site, multivendor operators Market Halls opened Cargo Market Hall at the foot of the North Colonnade building. Aussie all-day dining establishment Caravan opened a Canary Wharf branch in February 2022, burger joint Patty & Bun will launch in early summer, and Dishoom lands later in the year.


“All are operators at a mature stage in their business lifespans, and unlike the chains of yesteryear, have cleverly managed to retain a sense of ‘indie,’ which suggests their arrival into a corporate zone is transformative,” says Adam Coghlan, editor of food website Eater London. He argues that Canary Wharf isn’t more viable for independent restaurants, but rather that chains are perceived to be more trendy.


According to The Canary Wharf Group’s press office, its strategy hasn’t changed since before the pandemic, although Covid-19 has reiterated its focus on sustainability, health, and well-being. Floating pontoons, ecological gardens, and watersports, envisioned through a tie-up between CWG and the Eden Project, are expected to bring more visitors to this concrete jungle. 


“The business districts that struggle the most are those dominated by one industry, or type of profession. If it’s just people in suits that use your neighborhood, you’ve got a problem,” says Simon Yewdall, strategy director at DNCO, a design and place branding agency. “For white-collar workers, the office has to compete with people’s local neighborhoods, so to stay relevant it needs to offer something they don’t. Local neighborhoods are great, but often it’s not feasible for them to support world-class restaurants or cultural institutions.”


To solve this issue, the DNCO recommends incentives to tempt people back, such as free travel on public transport, discounts at local shops or restaurants, and events. “It also includes considering how you can re-enliven empty shops with arts and culture. Otherwise, it becomes a spiral: Office workers move out, so local businesses shut down, which makes it a less attractive place to be,” says Yewdall.


Introducing flexible workspaces and coworking isn’t just a short-term fix to the big, empty office problem. It also really helps to enliven commercial districts, says Jonny Rosenblatt, cofounder of coworking company Spacemade. “If you do it successfully, you’re guaranteed to have a critical mass of workers. People very rarely pay for a coworking space if they’re not going to show up, unlike with a traditional office where individual employees don’t think about the cost of the lease."


Canary Wharf leaned into this emerging trend in February when it launched MadeFor, a flexible office service at 40 Bank Street with leasing models similar to WeWork and Spacemade. The spaces, which are fully managed and cleaned by CWG, can be pivoted to include breakout areas, collaboration space, and any feature the tenant might request (beer taps included). Its first tenant, Citigroup, is taking 95,000 square feet of space as it waits for the refurbishment of its permanent office. “It’s not just about getting people back into offices: it’s about getting the right people into the right kinds of offices to help bring these areas to life,” says Rosenblatt.


Just as much as workers want to mix up where they work, cultural variety in their places of work is the key to resilience and reinvigoration of business districts—and Canary Wharf may have had an advantage prepandemic, perhaps because locations outside “pure” business districts offer greater ability to move with the times. At Bankside Yards, for example, a £2.5 billion scheme being built on the South Bank, the developer Native Land is taking a “hypermixed” approach by featuring offices, homes, restaurants, cafés, cultural space, and a hotel.


“Businesses moving into the offices will already have a vibrant community right on their doorstep,” says Nicholas Gray, Native Land’s sales and marketing director. “This is becoming increasingly important with the rise of hybrid working, and attitudes which prioritize work-life balance. If people are going to come into offices, they want to be part of a stimulating and exciting environment—not a monocultural business district.”


Wired (Megan Carnegie) -

Photo by Alex Tai on Unsplash

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