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