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Thursday31 July 2014

Argent’s David Partridge on redeveloping King’s Cross

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Successful offices don’t need to be iconic, but they do need a sense of place, says architect turned developer David Partridge.

He still carries a pencil, but it’s been some 20 years since David Partridge gave up working as an architect and joined developer Argent.

Now joint chief executive and engrossed in the 8 million sq ft regeneration of King’s Cross Central behind London’s King’s Cross station,he has no regrets.

“When do you get the chance to do that as an architect?” he says, surprisingly chipper for someone who woke up in Manchester and fitted in a visit to Brighton before our lunchtime London meeting. Partridge, who is responsible for Argent’s internal and external structures and relationships, is obviously a busy man despite, or perhaps because of, the “desperate” state of the market.

For although King’s Cross Central is alive with activity as Stanton Williams’s University of the Arts London takes shape and the infrastructure is created, there is as yet still no sign of any of the 24 planned new offices, totalling 4 million sq ft, breaking ground.

Yet Argent, which is part of the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership (with DHL and London & Continental Railways) developing the key site, has been anything but idle behind the scenes. As development manager it has lined up an impressive cast of practices, including David Chipperfield, Allies & Morrison and Porphyrios Associates, to develop the designs, recently securing planning approval of reserved matters on several of the six buildings around Pancras Square.

But when will they be able to press the go button? Pretty soon according to Partridge, who hopes to be starting on site on the Pancras Square buildings by the end of 2011 or start of 2012, pending that crucial successful outcome of pre-let negotiations.

The plan is that the first few of the office buildings (B2, B4, B6) will be complete to catch the eagerly-anticipated mid-2010s window of opportunity expected when many major businesses will be coming to the end of their 25-year leases. In the regions, he reckons this may happen slightly later, providing opportunities for those who have been brave enough to take the plunge and start building, as Argent would love to do with No 1 St Peter’s Square in Manchester designed by Glenn Howells Architects, pre-let permitting.

When demand does return, Argent wants to be ready with what the market needs. And that, says Partridge, is buildings that are green – Breeam “excellent” is now expected – flexible to accommodate future change, and are crucially situated in an environment with the right setting. At King’s Cross Central this means a mix of uses and a quality public realm, unlike what Partridge terms the “mono-cultural” nature of 1970s and 1980s office development. Investing in landscape architecture is only part of the story – there needs to be active ground floor premises, diversity of uses such as art galleries, markets, shops and events to engage the whole community.

“We don’t want it to be sterile. How do you keep that King’s Cross edge without turning it into Disneyland?” he says.

Certainly not by commissioning “iconic” stand-out buildings. Because of St Paul’s Heights restrictions, none of the offices proposed so far are above 11 storeys, although there are some locations on the site where they can build higher such as the Glenn Howells-designed student housing tower.

“Star architects more known for iconic buildings are conspicuous by their absence,” he says. “Generally we go with ones with a more contextual approach to making cities, who have experience of fitting large buildings into a part of the city that are part of that city rather than standing out of it…We’re not going all glass, or all brick, or all stone – we’re prepared to be fairly eclectic. But it’s very important it doesn’t end up as a zoo.”

Instead, he’s more interested in creating a “credible piece of city”, bringing out an A-Z map of London amended to show the roads they are building through the King’s Cross Central site to illustrate the point. By 2014, this infrastructure will be 85% complete.

“We’re building the city. The buildings will follow,” he says.

But it’s hard to keep faith when the office market is so difficult, although Partridge reckons the early 1990s recession was much worse than the current one. Meanwhile, Argent is exploring other avenues beyond its traditional business of developing offices including serviced apartments, student housing and private rental.

“I’m so glad I’m no longer in the position where I’m beholden to someone else. I’ve got more opportunity to make things happen than if I was an architect,” he says.

One of the things he enjoys most about being a developer is walking anonymously through a public space or building he’s been involved in when it’s all been completed. It will be some considerable time before he can do so at King’s Cross Central, but Partridge, confident in Argent’s vision for the site, is prepared to wait.

“You have to be patient and allow it to evolve.”

Meanwhile, if he wants to get something built a bit quicker, there’s always the holiday house he’s designing for his family in Ibiza. However established he may now be as a developer, being an architect is obviously a hard habit to quit.

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