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All The World’s A Stage: Inside The £1.3B London Scheme Using Theatre And Schools To Attract Tenants

The joint venture behind one of London’s biggest redevelopment projects is betting that art, culture, education and history can turn a famous exhibition hall into one of London’s most valuable and popular mixed-use developments.

When Yoo Capital and Deutsche Finance International bought the Olympia Exhibition Centre in West Kensington from listed property company Capco for £296M in 2017, the expectation was that the exhibition business would be kept, with hundreds of luxury apartments built above it.

Instead, the JV, with Yoo as development manager, has plumped for a 2.25M SF scheme where theatres, music venues, jazz bars and a performing arts school take up more square feet than the traditional asset class of offices, which will also form part of the redeveloped scheme.

A rendering of the redeveloped Olympia

At a time when both the arts and offices in London face an uncertain future, they have staked £1.3B that the two will complement each other, creating something both culturally and financially valuable. 

“When it was put up for sale in 2017, Olympia was a scheme that fell through the cracks,” Yoo Capital Managing Partner Lloyd Lee told Bisnow in an interview at Olympia. “Some people liked the property, some people liked the exhibition business, but we were one of very few who liked both.”

Lee said the plans for the scheme evolved over the four years between purchase and redevelopment getting going in earnest in 2021. But from the start, the plan was to open up the large 14-acre site that consultation with local residents showed was seen as a bit of a closed fortress.

Olympia was opened in 1886, and was first conceived as an exhibition hall for agricultural shows, with a remit that later expanded to include exhibitions and trade shows of all kinds across four halls, including the BBC Good Food Show and the National Wedding Show.

Yoo Capital's Lloyd Lee

Lee said keeping the 135-person exhibition business going was always part of the plan — partly to continue a business that had “showcased the best that Britain creates” for more than 125 years, but also because it was financially viable, with other London exhibition venues like nearby Earls Court shutting down.

The scheme now underway will see the exhibition space element reduced but retained, including the original Victoria-domed roof and ironwork.

In addition, the project calls for a new 1,574-seat theatre operated by Trafalgar Entertainment Group, the largest new theatre built in London since the National Theatre in 1976; a 4,000-capacity Anschutz Entertainment Group music venue; a jazz club-style restaurant; new Hyatt Regency and CitizenM hotels; and a school for the performing arts operated by Alpha Plus Group in partnership with BRIT Kids, the stage school attended by Amy Winehouse and Adele.

The scheme also includes 100K SF of bars, cafés and restaurants, 2.5 acres of pedestrianised streets and public realm, and more than 500K of office space.

Designed by Heatherwick studio in collaboration with SPPARC, the scheme is scheduled to complete in Q2 2025, thanks, in part, to an £875M construction loan from Goldman Sachs in 2020.

Olympia today

Part of the rationale behind the mix of uses was to open the scheme up — previously it was only open for 182 days a year, Lee said. After redevelopment, pedestrian walkways will bisect the entire scheme, elements of which will be open 365 days a year.

The mix of cafés and restaurants and a small food hall will cater to both local residents and those visiting for an exhibition or show.

“We want to have different offers at different price points, and create that place where local residents can come for a coffee on a Sunday morning,” Yoo Capital Director of Communications and Social Impact Louise Page-Jennings said.

One building has been changed from offices to a school for performing arts, operated under the Wetherby name by Delancey-owned Alpha-Plus. The school will be fee-paying, with a partnership run by BRIT Kids that will provide places for children from the local area.

As well as making Olympia a destination, Lee said the arts and cultural facilities were a key element in filling more than 500K SF of office space in an area not noted as a traditional office location.

“In its simplest terms, if you’re an office occupier and you want to attract people to work for you, do you just want to be in another joyless office building?” he said. “Theatres, concert venues, they create value in the whole scheme because they turn it into a place that people want to be, that they know, because they come here at the weekend.”

Olympia occupies a 14-acre site in west London.

Lee declined to detail whether the cultural elements of the scheme pay a traditional rent, preferring to look at the matter through the prism of office rents.

“An occupier might not see much of a difference paying £44 a SF versus £40 a SF [at a scheme without as many cultural attractions]," he said. "They won’t pay £60 a SF, but they are willing to pay that little bit extra.”

The scheme has yet to announce any office tenants, but Lee said it has been on the shortlist of several large requirements currently in the market. In today's office market, occupiers can still command significant rent-free periods, he said, but rents for the best schemes remain robust, and the supply pipeline is limited when the project is scheduled to open in 2025.

Yoo is no stranger to developments that put art and culture at the forefront. It is converting the former Odeon Cinema on Shafestbury Avenue in the West End, as well as planning a new film quarter development in Camden, in north London, a mixed-use scheme with a focus on creating facilities for the film and television industry. 

This focus is partly a happy coincidence for Lee: As an undergraduate at Harvard University, he worked back of house designing and constructing sets for the university's American Repertory Theatre, including working on productions of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and the musical Guys and Dolls.

“It gave me an appreciation of what artists do,” he said.

Olympia's combination of uses is about re-creating a scheme that carries a famous name but sits on an underused site.

“Olympia has the patina that has been created over more than 100 years,” he said. “You can’t create that, you can only polish it.”