The Shard as metaphor for London

June 26, 2012
Aditya Chakrabortty doesn't like the Shard, the huge new skyscraper nearing completion next to London Bridge station, across the river from the City of London.

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Aditya Chakrabortty doesn’t like the Shard, the huge new skyscraper nearing completion next to London Bridge station, across the river from the City of London. It’s certainly a monument to the 0.01%: owned by the government of Qatar, and featuring Michelin-starred restaurants catering to guests at the five-star hotel; the hedge-fund managers who will rent out the office space; and of course the plutocrats in the 10 monster apartments (for sale at prices starting at $47 million or so).

Aditya’s not happy about this at all: the Shard, he says, “both encapsulates and extends the ways in which London is becoming more unequal and dangerously dependent on hot money”. The inequality point is inarguable, but it’s also inevitable, in any global financial center. And as for the dangerous dependence on hot money, that I’m less sure about.

Aditya cites “Who owns the City?“, a report from the University of Cambridge which shows that 52% of the City of London is now owned by foreigners, up from 10% in 1980. That’s a trend, not a hot-money capital flow: after all, the trend survived the financial crisis unscathed, even as property values plunged. He writes:

As the Cambridge team point out, the giddy combination of overseas cash and heavy borrowing leaves London in a very precarious position. Another credit crunch, or a meltdown elsewhere in the world, would now almost certainly have big knock-on effects in the capital.

I’ve read the Cambridge report, and I don’t really see them saying that at all. The closest they come is this:

For global financial office markets such as the City of London, functional specialisation not just in financial services but in internationally‚Äźoriented financial services lock the fortunes of the occupier market to the state of the global capital markets; while growing international ownership and specialist global financial and real estate investment vehicles help to lock the investment and occupier markets together in a way that increases both upside and downside risk‚Ķ

The locking together of occupier, investment, development and financing markets both within the City and across financial centres contributes to an inherent, systemic risk.

The point being made here, in less than crystal-clear language, is that the owners of the City are the same as the occupiers of the buildings in the City. Which means that if there’s a big bust in the world of international finance, the owners won’t just want to sell, they might well move out, as well — causing a double whammy to London office prices.*

But a reduction in London office prices is what Aditya wants! It would reduce inequality, and more generally it would provide a dividend of glossy and expensive real estate to a population which could never have afforded it on its own. That was Dan Gross’s point in Pop — while bubbles are bad for the people who invest in them, they’re generally good for the economy as a whole, which sees a lot of investment which would otherwise not have been made.

London’s a financial center, and like all other financial centers, it gets a lot of tax revenue from the financial industry. Come another credit crunch, that tax revenue will fall. But for the time being it makes sense to welcome the revenue, and the infrastructure improvements which international financiers are happy to pay top dollar for.

The fact is that new skyscrapers always cause an outbreak of nimbyish bellyaching. Here in New York, Christine Quinn, our probable next mayor, is refusing to come out and endorse a relatively modest addition to Chelsea Market, because although it makes sense from a city-wide perspective, the locals don’t like it. They never do.

But cities need density, and if they’re not going to degenerate into anachronism, they need big, expensive, modern skyscrapers. Especially if they aspire to being a financial center. Some of the criticisms of the Shard are just silly: the idea, for instance, that it somehow ruins the view of the Tower of London. What view of the Tower of London? You certainly couldn’t ever see it from London Bridge station, and in general the Tower is famous for being the least recognizable major landmark in London. I used to work as one of those tour guides on top of open-topped double-decker buses, for a summer, and I can assure you that long before the Shard was built, there was really nowhere you could get a good view of the Tower. Your best bet was to drive north across Tower Bridge, but even then the Tower itself just kind of shrinks into the riverbank, and a lot of tourists had no idea what they were meant to be looking at.

London is a city of large buildings on narrow streets (try finding the entrance to investment bank NM Rothschild one day), and the Shard is just the latest extension of that idea. I, for one, welcome it to the London skyline, even if I never set foot inside the place. It’s certainly a lot more interesting — and adds a lot more value to the city — than the bland mid-rise office buildings which Washington is doomed to, given its strict height zoning. Aditya’s right that the Shard hasn’t — yet — improved the lot of its immediate neighbors, but building nothing on that spot would hardly have been better for them.

I suspect that over time, the Shard will attract more money and gentrification to London Bridge in general, which is great news if your worry, like Aditya’s, is the area’s “deprivation and unemployment”. Cities are living things, and the construction of the Shard is proof that London’s still very much alive. And that, as Woody Allen would say, is definitely better than the alternative.

*Update: Colin Lizieri of Cambridge University writes to add that he was making another point, too: that diversification into office space in different financial centers is not really diversification at all, since the owners and occupiers of all that property are increasingly the exact same businesses, or at least very highly correlated ones.


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