The Brancatelli File



December 14, 2006 -- 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 probably 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. Even most of the official London maps distributed by Visit Britain, the U.K.'s national travel agency, relegates the Canary Wharf-Docklands area to a tiny inset on the far edge of the reverse side.

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 opinionmakers 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, for better and worse, 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 seagoing 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 office buildings, parks 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 80,000 people work in the area now. More than 14 million square feet of office and retail space has been built. There are parks, underground shopping malls, hotels and global tenants such as Citigroup, HSBC, McGraw-Hill and Ogilvy Advertising.

"This is the future of London," insists Richard Johnson, a transplanted New York banker who's worked in the Docklands since 1998. "It doesn't look like London, I admit, but it doesn't work like London, either. Most offices in The City can't handle the infrastructure most companies need today. But everything here is new. It accommodates anything. If you're a multinational doing business in London, this is the only place to put your offices."

Maybe so, but Canary Wharf and the Docklands is hardly the Emerald City. As it has grown--the area's workforce has more than tripled since 2000--Canary Wharf has gone sterile. It's not an integral part of London and most of the area shuts down after 7 p.m. The street life has been driven to the soulless, anonymous underground shopping malls that might just as well be in Minneapolis or Singapore or Toronto. You can spend several days in the Docklands and never feel as if you've been to London at all.

"It turns out Prince Charles wasn't entirely wrong," complains one disenchanted Londoner who commutes each day to Canary Wharf. "Yes, the streets are clean. Yes, everything works. But the London we love doesn't exist here. It's quite synthetic. I guess it's what happens when you plan a neighborhood rather than let it grow organically."

Canary Wharf is connected to the London Underground with a spectacular station on the Jubilee Line. In many ways, the seven-year-old station is the heart of the district and all the buildings and shopping radiate from it. Travel time from Canary Wharf to the Green Park station is about 15 minutes. Use the Underground whenever possible because cab rides to The City and elsewhere in Central London are a nightmare, especially during rush hour. The Docklands Light Railroad (DLR), an above-ground system, connects with the London Underground at Canary Wharf and several other tube stations. The DLR is efficient enough, but more useful for transportation to outlying areas of the Docklands rather than getting around the heart of Canary Wharf.

The newest major hotel in the Docklands, the Hilton London Canary Wharf, opened this summer and the 238-room property is as sterile as the area around it. It's a masterpiece of modern British minimalism over functionality. Service is also extremely spotty. You'll be better off at the London Marriott West India Quay, a 279-room hotel a few minutes walk from the center of Canary Wharf. It's cookie-cutter Marriott, of course, but it has softer edges and more practical amenities than the Hilton. The best hotel in the district is the 142-room/14-suite Four Seasons Canary Wharf. The seven-year-old property was the first major hotel in the Docklands and it's stark without being soulless. Guestrooms offer a unique window box where you can sit and admire the view or store files and other work-related supplies.

The Gun is one of those new-wave British gastropubs, but don't hold that against the place. It's a fine pub of the old style and the food is tasty and creative. Curve, in the Marriott, offers spectacular views and excellent seafood. Hubbub is actually a tranquil, distinctive loft space that feels uniquely London. The casual fare is excellent. The Canary Wharf branch of Royal China does excellent dim sum at lunch and reliable entrees at dinner. And just to show you how removed Canary Wharf is from London: It's almost impossible to find a good Indian or Pakistani place. The food at Tandoori Xpress (111B Deptford High Street) is terrific and dirt cheap by London standards, but it is essentially a take-away joint.

The official Canary Wharf site is everything you'd expect from a rah-rah corporate site. The Museum in Docklands offers a clear-eyed view of Britain's maritime history and its impact on the region. There are two weekly papers in the area. The Wharf is published by Trinity Mirror, the company that owns the Daily Mirror. Trinity Mirror is headquartered in the Docklands. The Docklands is owned by a publisher of local London newspapers.

London City Airport is a five-minute cab ride from Canary Wharf and it offers great connections to several dozen cities in Europe. That's the good news. The bad news is that there is no service to or from the United States or Canada. North American travelers using Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted end up in transportation hell if they are working or staying in Canary Wharf. A cab ride is a 2-hour, US$100 ordeal in the morning rush hour, when most U.S. and Canadian flights arrive in London. Express trains from the airports terminate at Underground stations (Paddington for Heathrow, Victoria for Gatwick and Liverpool Street for Stansted) that require difficult onward connections to Canary Wharf or pricey, time-consuming cab rides.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.