Lit up

It failed as a shop­ping cen­tre but some creative think­ing has seen this Lon­don docks build­ing trans­formed into a 21st-cen­tury space

The Australian - The Deal - - News - Story by: Jac­quelin Mag­nay

Tobacco Dock re­made

In early 2012, when Patrick Dono­van first stepped in­side a huge but bare 1812 ware­house in East Lon­don, he was al­most over­whelmed with the pos­si­bil­i­ties it pre­sented. Here was a beau­ti­ful old dock build­ing that had sat empty for more than two decades after $100 mil­lion had been spent to turn it into a shop­ping cen­tre. Four years on, his work at Tobacco Dock is a stun­ning ex­am­ple of a global trend for busi­ness to re­brand and re­gen­er­ate tired and un­der­utilised city spa­ces.

By the time Dono­van saw it, the her­itage-listed build­ing was empty and dusty, with the ves­tiges of the failed shop­ping cen­tre still in place. Two old ships, The Three Sis­ters and the Sea Lark – repli­cas of a 19th-cen­tury Amer­i­can schooner and a 330-tonne tobacco and spice pi­rate ship from 1788 – in­voked the build­ing’s mar­itime his­tory. They had been in­stalled to oc­cupy chil­dren while par­ents shopped but now they sat empty in the wa­ter next to the cob­ble­stone paving.

Dono­van, a brand ex­pert and mar­keter, could see that Tobacco Dock, or more for­mally, The Skin Floor Ware­house, had fab­u­lous bones. The com­plex was once filled with chests of cigars, and the vaults pro­tected eight mil­lion gal­lons of wine. In the 1860s the trad­ing floor was stocked with furs and pelts and sheep­skins from Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

But Dono­van, called in to ad­vise its Kuwaiti own­ers Al Mubarakia, on how to re­vi­talise the dock, knew that in re­cent years, the huge site had been lit­tle more than a cu­rios­ity for East End lo­cals. Most shops had shut just a year or so after the shop­ping cen­tre had opened, al­though one of the old ten­ants, Frank and Steins café, had kicked on for eight years, sell­ing cof­fee to work­ers in the nearby dock ar­eas.

As Dono­van looked at the sur­viv­ing sec­tion of six bays, cov­er­ing 7500sq m, the in­te­ri­ors – the huge oak beams, the fine iron­work, the tim­ber queen post trusses and brick vaults – seemed to cry out for ac­tion. The his­toric list­ing meant Tobacco Dock couldn’t be pulled down, but it needed much care.

There was an up­side: though the build­ing’s short-lived con­sumer ac­tiv­ity had been hit hard by the late-80s re­ces­sion and poor trans­port links, more re­cent de­vel­op­ments, such as an over­land train and the out­ward creep of the City of Lon­don, meant it was now on the edge of a boom­ing prop­erty mar­ket. Its own­ers wanted to know what they could do to re­vi­talise it and make it a draw­card for res­i­den­tial and ho­tel de­vel­op­ments on ad­ja­cent va­cant plots.

Dono­van’s lengthy ca­reer in live events, re­tail mar­ket­ing, spon­sor­ship and de­vel­op­ing brands for house­hold prod­ucts (most re­cently the launch of lin­gerie brand Rigby and Peller in the US, im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ences for Bac­ardi and an Agin­court ex­hi­bi­tion in Kent) meant his creative an­ten­nae were buzzing. Rather than try­ing to pro­mote the lease to some­one else, he de­cided to take it on him­self.

Says Dono­van: “I tried to keep money at the front of my mind – it’s got to work from a fi­nan­cial point of view – but I fell in love with the build­ing. Now I feel a ridicu­lous sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to bring it back to life, I re­ally want it to start hum­ming.”

His visit was just be­fore the Lon­don Olympics and he imag­ined mul­ti­ple spa­ces for big cor­po­rate events, wed­dings, busi­ness meet­ings and con­ven­tions. In the short term, he could en­vi­sion rent­ing it to Olympic spon­sors or the party houses as­so­ci­ated with many of the Olympic teams.

Ne­go­ti­a­tions dragged and it wasn’t un­til April 2012, just four months be­fore Danny Boyle’s open­ing cer­e­mony, that Dono­van se­cured the lease. It was too late to lock in any ma­jor Olympic deals. It could have been a fi­nan­cial dis­as­ter, espe­cially as Dono­van was spend­ing about $4m to re­pur­pose the space.

But as it hap­pened, the UK Min­istry of De­fence was look­ing for space to ac­com­mo­date thousands of army of­fi­cers drafted in at the last minute to pro­vide se­cu­rity ser­vices when the Games’ se­cu­rity con­trac­tor G4S failed to de­liver the re­quired num­bers.

So in­stead of bunt­ing and beer, the build­ing was filled with camp beds, por­ta­ble gal­leys and a res­i­dent colonel.

“It be­came a gar­ri­son for a month, the army trans­formed it in two days which was quite stun­ning, all these lor­ries sud­denly ar­rived and then some field kitchens, there were 2000 beds and a gym,” Dono­van re­calls.

But it was when Coca-Cola booked the place for its end-ofO­lympics party that its name was made. Word got around that this was a per­fect party and cor­po­rate en­ter­tain­ing space, and in the four years since, the build­ing has hosted 1000 events and half a mil­lion vis­i­tors. Events have in­cluded the Meatopia con­ven­tion, an­nual food fes­ti­val Taste of Lon­don, dance par­ties and even a Bol­ly­wood wed­ding.

The com­plex has 24 spa­ces, with the largest the 1300sqm Great Gallery that can seat 1200 for din­ner or a cor­po­rate awards func­tion. The day The Deal vis­ited, builders were con­struct­ing ex­hi­bi­tions and play op­por­tu­ni­ties in the an­te­rooms and pre­par­ing the grand room for a tele­vised gam­ing con­ven­tion.

Dono­van says the venue op­er­ates at un­der 50 per cent ca­pac­ity, but the de­mand is grow­ing – par­tic­u­larly now that one of Lon­don’s big­gest venues, the Earls Court Ex­hi­bi­tion Cen­tre, has closed to be re­de­vel­oped into hous­ing.

“The vi­sion was to use the events busi­ness to make money, and to then use it to help fit [the space] out with small busi­nesses,” Dono­van says.

In­trigu­ingly, he went for the very small end of the mar­ket – mi­cro-ten­ants – of­fer­ing workspaces to help fledg­ling en­trepreneurs get off the ground. One huge sub­ter­ranean room in the for­mer wine vaults has been re­con­fig­ured into hip of­fice space with ul­tra­fast wi-fi con­nec­tions. For £250 ($485) a month work­ers can rent a space and net­work with like-minded com­pa­nies with no com­mit­ment or lease or rate costs.

“It has been very pop­u­lar. One com­pany started with three desks and they have ex­panded to 14 now,” Dono­van says.

“We felt there was enough de­mand in Lon­don and the tra­di­tional of­fice space is quite con­strained. Start-ups can’t sign up for three years and com­mit to rates and other costs, they need flex­i­bil­ity to be able to grow at their own pace.”

So far 220 workspaces are filled, the luxe un­der­ground café is a hive of ac­tiv­ity and work­ers can boast a rather cool ad­dress: Tobacco Dock.

“Our risk was our lo­ca­tion com­pared to Shored­itch and Soho, where young busi­ness peo­ple would be keen to meet up with their mates around the cor­ner, but this is more flex­i­ble, cheaper, and the net­work­ing and type of busi­nesses are more var­ied,” says Dono­van. “We have ca­pac­ity for 300 workspaces and there is an­other area we are fit­ting out to add an­other 50, which will add to the buzzing ecosys­tem.”

One of the ten­ants is the US start-up Mass Chal­lenge, which pro­motes bud­ding en­trepreneurs. Nearby are two 22-year-olds cre­at­ing a pro­gram for uni­ver­si­ties to iden­tify stu­dents at risk of drop­ping out so that there can be early in­ter­ven­tion. In the same area is a cy­cling com­pany that de­signs be­spoke train­ing pro­grams for ded­i­cated novices and wannabe Tour de France ped­allers and across the room is a grow­ing com­pany pro­vid­ing in-work lunches. Dono­van’s own com­pany In­ter­act Brand­ing has taken up a por­tion of the un­der­ground vaults too.

“It’s great to see it come to life – even the neigh­bours in the area, who you might have thought would want the peace and quiet of an empty build­ing, are happy to see it be­ing used,” Dono­van says. “Be­ing in this en­vi­ron­ment you’re ex­posed to many dif­fer­ent con­cepts. It’s fab­u­lous to have in­ter­est­ing peo­ple with great ideas.”

“I tried to keep money at the front of my mind – it’s got to work from a fi­nan­cial point of view – but I fell in love with the build­ing. Now I feel a ridicu­lous sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to bring it back to life.” Patrick Dono­van

Patrick Dono­van, top, and events held at Tobacco Dock since its re­gen­er­a­tion

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