Wall Street on Water: The Rebirth of London's Historic Wharves

Arthur Moreton remembers when, decades ago, ocean-going liners used to steam up the River Thames and berth at wharves just five miles from London's West End.

"In those days, Britain had the world's largest merchant fleet," he recalls, "and the Pool of London was the world's busiest port. Then it all went wrong."

Today, gazing out over the Docklands area - now a shimmering landscape of glass and steel skyscrapers extending more than 8.5 square miles - Mr. Moreton speaks of "a total transformation."

"From becoming a rotting wasteland in the early 1970s, Docklands is now vibrantly alive," he says. Referring to the growing number of finance houses and businesses opening offices along the edges of the old wharves, he adds, "They've even started calling it 'Wall Street on Water.' "

Moreton's acquaintance with Docklands began in 1961, when he was a young telephone engineer and the Pool of London still served vessels from five continents. Nobody imagined that before the millennium, Docklands would be a rich mix of futuristic high-rise office buildings and hotels, or that the warehouses that had stored tea from India, wool from New Zealand, beef from Argentina, and a host of other imports, would find new lives as luxury apartments.

The events that set the scene for the renovation, Moreton recalls, "were melancholy and came incredibly swiftly."

"Giant container vessels quickly began replacing freighters. The big ships were not suited to a tidal river, and the docks couldn't accommodate them anyway. Thousands of men were thrown out of work."

In the late 1950s, the area had employed 100,000 dockers and ancillary workers. By 1967, there were only 12,000 registered dockworkers. In 1981, Docklands said goodbye to its last big ship. Unemployment soared.

Suddenly, says Reg Ward, one of the first planners to try to pump new life into the sad hulk Docklands had become, the area in investment terms had "all the attractions of a Siberian salt-mine."

But events beyond Docklands triggered unanticipated developments.

In the early 1980s, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was settling into what would be a dozen years in power. Inner-city riots in London's Brixton district and in the western England city of Bristol prompted her to create a new kind of agency: the urban development corporation. In 1981, the Docklands agency became her "flagship" project.

Moreton opened a quayside business center, from which he watched the newly created London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) plot the area's rejuvenation.

A key part of the plan was to create an enterprise zone at the heart of Docklands on the Isle of Dogs (See story below). Mrs. Thatcher ordered old-fashioned restrictions on building height and design to be lifted, and her government offered tax breaks to commercial firms prepared to invest in Docklands.

The British government also funded an elevated railway that now snakes through the district and ordered London City airport to be built beside the river. Access highways and underpasses were planned. Supermarkets and restaurants were encouraged to open to meet the needs of future residents and office workers.

As things turned out, the Iron Lady had chosen a propitious moment to relaunch Docklands. The economic boom of the mid-1980s provided a mighty boost. Very soon the results of regeneration became apparent.

London's Daily Telegraph newspaper moved in. Printing companies followed. Large firms, including newly privatized British Telecom, began to see the attractions of working in new offices with space aplenty and views of the Thames that could only be described as sensational.

Dozens of housing developments were begun, offering a wide range of apartment accommodation.

What was seen at the time to be the crowning glory of the Docklands initiative was the decision to build an 800-foot-tall office tower on the site of a former banana warehouse at Canary Wharf.

Paul Reichmann, millionaire head of the Canadian Olympia and York Corp., took charge of the project.

Today the Canary Wharf Tower is Britain's tallest building. It contains a vast shopping complex and has office accommodation for more than 21,000 people. International companies with offices in the complex include Texaco, BZW, Citibank, Credit Suisse First Boston, Morgan Stanley, and Reader's Digest.

But although the tower is 90 percent full today, it - and the rest of the Docklands project - came to the edge of disaster in the late 1980s when Britain's boom turned to bust.

Construction work on Docklands building projects had to be halted as prospective tenants stopped inquiring about office space and apartments.

In 1992, the Canary Wharf Tower went into receivership. House prices and rentals in Docklands plummeted.

Then, on Feb. 9 last year, the Irish Republican Army detonated a bomb that ripped through a Docklands office complex, killing two people.

"Things at that point seemed really grim," recalls Mary Ryan, a waitress at a restaurant near the site of the blast. "But then many of us remembered that hundreds of millions of pounds had been invested in Docklands and that there was surely no way it would fail in the long run."

In fact, by the time of the IRA bombing, Britain's economic recovery was already well under way. For Docklands, the "long run" turned out to be mercifully short.

Real estate writer Anne Spackman says that today Docklands "is fast bouncing back." Mr. Reichmann has refinanced the Canary Wharf Tower and is in charge again. A spokesman for leading real estate agents Savills says Docklands property prices have returned to 1988 levels.

The Docklands airport is being used by 10 airlines flying to 18 destinations in Britain and continental Europe, and an extension of the London Underground subway will open next year, putting Docklands a 15-minute ride from bustling Piccadilly Circus.

Its mission complete, the LDDC is to be wound up next year. Local district councils will take responsibility for administering the area.

"Right now, 80,000 people live in Docklands and 72,000 work here," says LDDC spokeswoman Tricia O'Reilly. "The future is bright."

Ms. O'Reilly's confidence in Docklands is echoed by Peter Hall, professor of planning at University College in London. He says it is "the archetype of a new urban structure" that can be compared with developments in Shanghai, Tokyo, and Vancouver.

"If you woke up in today's Docklands with jet-lag," Mr. Hall says, "you might find it hard to work out what country you were in."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.