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Many Authors, Many Pens: Olympia’s New Owner Talks Strategy On Making A 130-Year-Old Building Timeless

A Heatherwick rendering of the exterior of the redeveloped Olympia exhibition centre in West Kensington, London

Placemaking — the art of taking a massive public space and transforming it into something new — is inherently risky. First is the risk of financial failure. Placemaking requires sizeable investments of capital in new buildings, infrastructure and green space. Once the space is complete, there is no guarantee that tenants and visitors will line up.

But the other risk that placemakers run is a lack of authenticity. When a single person or company takes on the role of masterplanner for a whole neighbourhood, the result may feel stale or artificial. Many mixed-use developments have failed and since been torn down because they could not attract the visitors that flock to more unique, organic neighbourhoods nearby.

Rather than acting as dictators, savvy placemakers are reaching out and listening, letting businesses author their own slice of a new development to form an organic whole. Getting cultural buy-in from tenants during the planning phase of placemaking can help ensure that developments show financial returns for many years into the future.

“You can’t have an ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality anymore: you need to listen,” Yoo Capital Managing Partner Lloyd Lee said. “Bringing in multiple authors and getting buy-in from the tenants early in the process gives a project financial longevity and makes a building feel timeless for every visitor.”

Yoo is an equity investor that specialises in placemaking on a grand scale. 

Lee has strong opinions on placemaking, and for good reason; Yoo Capital, along with Deutsche Finance, purchased West London’s Olympia exhibition centre in 2017. Built in 1886, Olympia has played host to Buffalo Bill, P.T. Barnum, Jimi Hendrix and The Cure. But now, Lee has something bigger in mind for the venerable venue.

A Heatherwick rendering of the Sky Garden at Olympia

The new plans for Olympia, which were approved in January, include a 1,500-seat theatre, a 1,000-seat performing arts venue, two hotels, 670K SF of office and coworking space, 30 eateries and markets, a four-screen cinema and 2.5 acres of new public land, not to mention the exhibition hall itself.

For years, Lee said, Olympia had been a transient venue, where huge lorries arrived on Monday to set up for a conference or show, only to whisk away the equipment — and the visitors — on Thursday.

“The days are gone when you could build a space, have people inhabit it for seven hours a day, three days a week, and have that be successful,” Lee said. “We want to take a dense urban location and create a flexible 24-hour neighbourhood with the idea that generations of tenants and builders will inhabit and adapt it, 20, 40, 100 years from now.”

Though it seems counterintuitive, the grand scale of the new Olympia was conceived with an eye toward fiscal viability and sustainability. It is only by adopting such a grand vision, Lee said, that Yoo Capital has been able to attract the innovative tenants that will make Olympia their home. 

"Genuine placemaking for us is not about unrestricted dreaming," Lee said. "It is about having the conviction to create bold visions and the disciplined skills to build based on incredibly robust financial models that ensure projects can stand the test of time for our investors and visitors alike."

With financial and cultural longevity in mind, Yoo Capital has followed a novel strategy for masterplanning: listening.

“Everyone thought we were crazy, but we went out directly to the people whom we wanted to live there,” Lee said. “Hyatt, Trafalgar Entertainment, Third Space Gym — we offered them a blank canvas and asked ‘What would you do with this space?’ The first thing we did was listen, for days and months, to the community and residents, the management team, the exhibition organisers and local borough.”

A Heatherwick rendering of Olympia Square, showing office space above

Rather than trying to place different tenants into cookie-cutter offices, Lee said that this consultative approach got tenants excited about residing and working in Olympia. Having a core of backers who were culturally invested in the space long before it came to market has created a snowball effect.

The result, Lee said, will be a venue and a neighbourhood that feel organic and eclectic, similar to the surrounding neighbourhoods that emerged through their shared history. In presenting the space as a blank canvas, he said, tenants were far more willing and excited to join in than if Yoo Capital had tried to square them into an existing framework.

“Offering up a whole space can make operators see more than just an office space,” Lee said. “They say: Give me the pen, I can take the space and do something brilliant with it.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Yoo Capital. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.