Empire, Suicide, Bankruptcy And Rebirth: Wembley’s Wild 150-Year Real Estate Journey
Wembley stadium, the venue for England v Italy in the European Championships final on Sunday evening, is a ground rich in memories for football fans from England and beyond: England beating Germany in 1966, Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne stretching in vain for a goal to bring England to the finals, the Tartan Army, George Best against Benfica, innumerable FA Cup finals.
But Wembley stadium itself and the area around it have a rollercoaster history as strange and rich as any final played there. Wembley real estate tells its own story, a journey from farmland in the suburbs of London to a 90,000-seater stadium and one of Europe’s largest residential developments, via an entrepreneur building his own version of the Eiffel Tower, a stadium built to promote the flagging British empire, the suicide of its owner, which may have saved it from demolition, to a rebuilding that managed to almost destroy one of the world’s largest construction companies.
The area today known as Wembley Park in north west London was a landed estate that in the 19th century was owned by a succession of minor British aristocrats, comprising farmland and a manor house.
In 1882, the estate was bought by the Metropolitan Railway Company, which was extending its London rail line north west into the suburbs outside of the UK capital. It bought the land adjoining the route of the line in order to build new stations and develop the surrounding areas — a strategy that highlights how “transit-orientated development” is not the new phenomenon some make it out to be.
The railway company’s chairman, Sir Edward Watkin, wanted to build attractions and homes on the land the company owned to encourage people to use the rail line. He chose Wembley Park as the location for a pleasure garden including sports grounds, a boating lake, tea pagodas, a golf course and the pièce de résistance, a 1,100-foot tower taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris, based on a similar design.
The tower was completed in 1894, and while it initially drew large crowds that paid to go up it, interest dwindled, and it was demolished in 1907.
The pleasure gardens remained popular, however, and Wembley became an established leisure destination for Londoners. In 1921, the British government decided to use the grounds as the site of the British Empire Exhibition, an expo with the aim of showcasing the brilliance of the British empire: In spite of victory in the first world war, the government felt that British global dominance was under threat, and it needed to put on a show.
More than 60 buildings were created on the site of the pleasure gardens, housing pavilions and displays from 56 of the 58 territories then part of the British empire.
One of the centrepieces of the exhibition was a new national sports stadium, capable of holding 125,000 spectators. Built in just 10 months, it was opened in 1923 and hosted its first FA Cup final that year. Because spectators were able to buy tickets on the day, as many as 250,000 fans piled into the ground, and the game could only be played after police cleared the pitch, in what has become known as the “White Horse Final.”
The Empire Exhibition was deemed such a success that it was extended from 1924 into 1925, but as with many developments for one-off events, no one really knew what to do with the site afterward.
The site and stadium were bought by a James White, a property investor who had originally made his money as a boxing promoter. His intention was to sell off the individual buildings on the site for redevelopment, including the stadium.
In an appointment that shows how property has changed in the past century, he tasked a man named Arthur Elvin with the task of selling the buildings and clearing the site. Elvin’s prior experience? He had worked in a tobacco kiosk during the exhibition and as a scrap metal merchant.
However, White hit financial difficulties in 1927 and died by suicide, sending the stadium into insolvency. Some financial engineering from Elvin allowed him to buy the stadium on the cheap and become chairman and the largest individual shareholder of the company that owned it, saving it from the envisaged demolition. The Football Association took full ownership of the stadium in the mid 20th century.
As London expanded over the decades, the area around the stadium was gradually developed as suburban housing, with much of the development happening on land owned by the Metropolitan Railway Company, which later became subsumed into London’s centralised transport authority.
Following the second world war, the history of Wembley and the surrounding Wembley Park area was fairly benign. The stadium hosted the 1948 Summer Olympics and famous music events like the 1985 Live Aid concert. Wembley Park became an established, if slightly unloved, part of north west London.
But at the end of the 1990s and into the 21st century, things started to get interesting again. The FA decided the ageing stadium needed to be rebuilt, and the last game at the old stadium was played in 2000.
The construction of the new 90,000-seater stadium was beset by problems and delays, and it opened in mid-2007 almost two years late. The stadium eventually cost just shy of £800M to build, more than double the original estimate, and Australian contractor Multiplex made a loss of more than £175M on the project. It was one of a series of post-global financial crisis losses that led to the company selling to Brookfield.
As the new stadium was being built, plans were being formulated to redevelop the surrounding area, encouraged by then-Mayor of London Ken Livingstone.
In 2002, listed property company Quintain bought a 44-acre site surrounding the stadium and started drawing up plans for a 5.3M SF mixed-use scheme. Further acquisitions took the site to 85 acres, and planning consent was received for as many as 8,500 homes to be built for sale.
But while it owned the site, Quintain did not have the money to build the scheme, and once the 2008 financial crisis hit, the company’s financial position became even more precarious. In 2013, it sold another huge redevelopment site in Greenwich for £186M in order to concentrate on Wembley Park, but it still did not have the financing in place to actually develop its plans.
The company was taken private in 2015 by opportunity fund manager Lone Star in a £1B deal. In 2017, Lone Star announced it would be pivoting Quintain, which would become a build-to-rent specialist, and that the Wembley Park scheme would comprise 6,000-plus rental homes, making it Europe’s largest rented residential project.
More than 3,000 homes have been completed to date, and the project is valued at more than £2B. A couple of attempts to sell the scheme for more than £2.5B have been aborted in the past couple of years, but it seems safe to say that Lone Star should make a big profit when it does finally sell Wembley Park.
There may be a few twists and turns still to come in the real estate story of Wembley. In 2018, the FA mulled selling Wembley to raise funds to invest elsewhere in the game. A £600M bid from Fulham owner Shahid Khan was on the table, but it was later withdrawn after a public outcry over the potential sale of the stadium.
The story of Wembley real estate has been one of triumph and despair. England will be hoping that when it comes to the football on Sunday evening, it will be the former rather than the latter.