Are you crazy? You want to change an existing retail building in a busy town centre you haven’t invested in before to residential? This seemed to be the general consensus.
Maybe I am I thought......but someone had to do it and my research told me I’m on to a sure thing. Its not the first time I was told I was nuts. When I aggressively expanded my holdings in Kensington others couldn’t see the sense. Prices in the area had increased 300% since acquiring my first unit. So I followed my gut instinct and jumped in both feet first.
My due diligence told me St Helens has every key ingredient to be the next property hotspot. This global industrial powerhouse of the past, with legacies such as Pilkingtons and Beechams (the beautiful building still stands proud to this day), has failed to keep apace with the ever changing economic landscape. Industry is now on its knees and such towns now need to reinvent themselves.
St. Helens is located perfectly to be the commuter town to the Northern Powerhouse cities of Liverpool and Manchester and the logistic hub of the UK, as Amazon and others have now spotted. It is also seeing innovation industry migrating due to lower costs, which means skilled well paid workforce needing luxury affordable accommodation.
The other benefit to the town is rental prices are a fraction of the cost compared to the aforementioned cities, jump on the train from St Helens Central and you can be at either one within 15-20 minutes.
Now taking a purpose built retail building from 1900 with such heritage and dropping a residential scheme in to it certainly isn’t for the faint hearted. I attended the site with the structural engineer, architect and project manager, we gazed up from the street taking in the sheer mammoth size of the project, all seemingly exhaling at the same time.
Uh oh was in the back of my mind but I didn’t want to sound concerned so I put on an optimistic and positive persona, “piece of piss” trying to jeer them up I remember.
At the time when I started Nicholson Lofts it was the single largest project I had conceived, and the most expensive to boot. It was, and remains, one of the most impressive buildings in the town centre, if not the borough. This building suffered from serious risk of falling into ruin and dereliction before Team Nico respected its heritage but changed it’s use to make it financially viable. There was a variety of comments when the acquisition and future use of the building were announced, some positive and some negative.
The negative comments don’t and have never concerned me, I just focus on what I need to do to achieve my vision.
Conversion opportunities are a great way to trigger a regeneration of town centres and the high street and can help generate momentum quickly. They are a lot more difficult than taking on a new build development, once you are out the ground there are not as many constraints or restrictions unlike a building.
With conversions you are held hostage to the existing structure and where the supporting steels and walls sit. You may, like we did, find interesting artefacts along the way, we found a glass coin commemorating the Queens’ visit. We also inherited a large bank vault type safe that was so heavy it couldn’t be removed,it now makes an amazing feature in the communal area.
However, if you are innovative and use ingenuity you can create something special, I believe a lot more special than a lot of the “bog standard” new builds we see thrown up today with no integrity, quality and lacking architectural appeal.
You do need to think outside the box from both a design and cost saving exercise. For example, our architect initially wanted us to implode an entire section of the building which would see the removal of a lift shaft. Why I thought? This now makes a great walk in wardrobe after putting in a floor, simple and saved thousands in demolition. Another huge, and often overlooked, issue is the infrastructure and its existing capacity. You can bet your bottom dollar that the electricity load being supplied to the building in its existing use won’t facilitate the use from a number of Apartments. The last thing you want is to complete a development and have all your tenants turn on their ovens and the lights go out!
Town centres are dying of death when retail parks were allowed to be created nearby. The retail presence has now once and for all shifted to these parks where you’ll find all the big brands, free parking and usually some kind of leisure offering, often the likes of Las Iguanas and Frankie & Bennys.
So what happens to the town centre? Will this be a ghost town forever? Well, that’s in the hands of local councils and private investors working together to create a solution.
I am a firm believer these town centres will thrive again, but they desperately need footfall. Once the footfall is there, who have disposable income, this will support the appetite for a strong leisure environment, cafes, restaurants and bars will appear. This then creates a place to live and play. Other towns have successfully created this model.
But how do you get the footfall and the right type of footfall?
I researched my target market heavily speaking with local businesses and banks to establish whether young professionals existed in the area.
My research indicated so but why were they not already living in the town centre. I looked at the properties on offer spoke to local estate agents and letting agents and it was apparent there was no offering to meet their requirements. There were skilled workers in the area. No luxury apartments at an affordable price tag......step in Team Nico.
I now established a market exists for the product I was about to deliver to the market. I now needed to secure planning permission for an iconic prominent building which was the Jewel in the crown for the local community. Would I be supported or would there be objections galore from the negative naysayers? What would people say?
Tune in next time to see how I went about converting the 15,000sqft building over 5 storeys to 15 luxury apartments and how I fared in securing a commercial tenant for the 4,500sqft duplex unit on favourable terms.
If you are on considering taking on any project regardless of size and would like more knowledge come and join us at Nicholson Academy where we will teach you all you need to know to be successful.