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 The Brancatelli File

joe OFF THE MAP
IN THE NEW LONDON


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 9, 2000 -- Whip out your map of London and try to find the British capital's hottest business district. Look for the area marked "Canary Wharf" or "Docklands" or even the Isle of Dogs. Look east, past The City, past the West End, past Tower Bridge, past anywhere and every place you've ever been in London.

Can't find it, can ya? No surprise, really. Canary Wharf, the new London--some would argue the future of London--literally isn't on the map. It isn't on any map. Even the official London plan distributed by the British Tourist Authority relegates the Canary Wharf/Docklands area to a tiny inset on the far edge of the reverse side of the city map.

And so it goes in the Docklands. The economic engines of 21st century British commerce--the banks, the media, the lawyers and the technology cartels--labor off the map in the new London. They build and expand on the ground literally used by the economic engines of the old British Empire--shipping and trade--and none of the cartographers or opinion makers can bring themselves to admit that this, too, is London. Just three miles east of the Bank of England in The City, the financial center of old London, the new London is growing, thriving and changing the face of the British capital.

"My mates laughed at me when we moved to the Docklands," says Derek Williams, an advertising executive with a spacious office in a Canary Wharf skyscraper overlooking the Thames. "They thought it was too far to travel, too isolated, with naff [bad] pubs. But our building has air conditioning. It accepts all the wiring needed for computers. I work in comfort. They are cramped in stuffy old offices with views of the dreary old offices across the road."

To fully understand how the Canary Wharf/Docklands district is transforming London, you've got to understand the history and geography of the British Capital.

First, the geography. The Docklands--at about 8 square miles, it is eight times the size of The City of London--is at the East End of London. Its social and cultural heart is the Isle of Dogs, a peninsula that juts into the Thames across from Greenwich, the emotional focus of British maritime history. The area housed the docks and warehouses that powered the sea-going might of British trade for more than 200 years. But the area deteriorated along with British maritime trade and, by 1980, the Docklands were largely abandoned.

In 1988, Olympia & York, the Canadian development firm, began construction of Canary Wharf, an 85-acre swatch of the Docklands envisioned as a complex of parks, office buildings and shopping malls. O&Y's thinking was simple: the derelict docks and warehouses were sitting on prime riverfront land just a few miles from the heart of London and the perfect place to build modern office space.

What Paul Reichmann, the scion of the family that controlled O&Y, didn't figure on was British antipathy to anything new and London's financial collapse in the early 1990s. Prince Charles, the self-styled royal architectural critic, dismissed Canary Wharf as "monstrous." And just a few months after the first tenants arrived in 1991, O&Y buckled under $15 billion of debt and declared bankruptcy. Work on Canary Wharf--and virtually every other development in the area--ground to a halt. The Docklands became a national joke.

But as the British economy revived toward the end of the 1990s, so did interest in the Docklands. Reichmann rounded up new investors, regained control of Canary Wharf and pressed on. The payoff? More than 25,000 people work in the area now, the Docklands has drawn tenants such as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Citibank, Ogilvy & Mather, Texaco and Credit Suisse First Boston and the entire area is roaring with activity.

"This is the future of London," insists Richard Johnson, a transplanted New York banker. "It doesn't look like London, I admit, but it doesn't work like London, either. Most office space in The City can't handle the infrastructure most companies need today. But everything here is new. It accommodates anything. If you're a multi-national doing business in London, this is the only place to put your offices."

ON THE GROUND: Canary Wharf is connected to the London Underground with a spectacular new station on the Jubilee Line extension. It opened to critical and operational raves in December. Travel time from Canary Wharf to the Green Park station is about 10 minutes. Use the Underground whenever possible because cab rides to The City and elsewhere in Central London are a nightmare, especially during rush hour.

LODGING: The 142-room/14-suite Four Seasons Canary Wharf opened December 16. It is the first hotel in the Docklands and it is a perfect expression of the area's ultra-modern architecture. Rooms are stark--there are no decorations on the walls except for a triptych over the bed--but they are large (about 400 square feet), plush and very functional. There are two chairs at the desk, for example, and multiple power plugs with various international configurations placed at desk level. Guest rooms also offer a unique window box where you can sit and admire the view or store files and other work-related supplies. The ballrooms are extremely elegant and resemble cozy restaurants rather than traditional hotel function rooms. Weekday prices start about $380 a night plus the 17.5 percent value-added tax. Weekend rates are about $375 and include champagne, breakfast, parking and the VAT.

IN THE AIR: London City Airport is a five-minute cab ride from Canary Wharf. It offers flights to two dozen European cities, but no service to North America.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.