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Slowly but surely, King’s Cross is whirring back to life. A steady drip-feed of day-trippers trickles to and from the station. Socially-distanced queues form outside bureaux de change. Alfresco diners spill out onto Granary Square, the area’s gentrified ground zero. And, finally, there’s the familiar clatter of heavy banging and drilling: after an enforced break, building work on London’s tech district is back under way.
Much of the clanging comes from Google’s £1 billion, 11-storey ‘groundscraper’, the jewel in the King’s Cross redevelopment crown. At 330 metres long, it’ll one day be larger than the Shard; rather than reach for the clouds, it’ll sprawl across the land. There’ll be an indoor basketball court and swimming pool, alongside a rooftop running track for thousands of Googlers. Presumably, there’ll be spaces to work, too. Previously due to open in 2016, work finally began two years ago: the skeletal frame looms between St Pancras and King’s Cross stations, but there’s still no completion date.
Google’s next-door neighbour will be Facebook. It’s set to move in next year: 611,000 square feet of glittering office space, which includes twin buildings wrapped around Regent’s Canal. Replete with roof gardens, panoramic lifts and a 600-seat theatre, the development jostles for space alongside nearby startups, Central Saint Martins art college and flourishing tech companies such as Alphabet-owned DeepMind, which will soon have an 11-storey office of its own.
Add a plethora of academic institutions on the nearby Euston Road (including the British Library and University College London, the area’s ‘knowledge quarter’), together with quick access into Oxford, Cambridge and even Europe, and it’s easy to see how this slice of the capital became prime Silicon Valley real estate, supplanting Old Street as the capital’s leading tech hub: it’s where the brains are based.
“It’s where ideas and real innovation flourish,” says Joanna Shields, CEO of pharmaceutical tech firm BenevolentAI, which moved to its office off Euston Road in 2015. “It offers the draw of one of the greatest knowledge clusters anywhere in the world – connecting us with the world’s foremost tech and science organisations.”
Amid the multibillion pound investments and architectural feats in King’s Cross, might be a tiny hitch, however: there’s no guarantee these buildings will ever be fully occupied again. Thanks to coronavirus, the King’s Cross tech hub sits largely empty. On benches, it’s builders, not office workers, eating their sarnies. The only sign of life at Google’s current UK headquarters on Pancras Square, around the corner from the groundscraper, is a lone security guard patrolling the entrance. Next door, Universal Music sits vacant; lunch hour haunts such as Leon and Wasabi remain closed, with chairs stacked on tables. The nearest Pret a Manger – a useful barometer of how busy an area is for offices – has only three customers at 1pm.
The pandemic has taught the world that employees can be trusted to work from home, productively, just fine. For tech companies, adapting to an office-free life was always going to be smooth. Four months in, there’s no rush to return – despite Boris Johnson urging people to return to work from August 1, in an effort to boost the country’s dying lunchtime economy.
Shields explains that Benevolent’s office has only reopened on an optional basis for now. “We’ve adopted a remote-first strategy,” she says. “We’ll be likely dealing with the virus for years to come.”
Over the canal from Pancras Square sits Coal Drops Yard. A one-time clubbing hotspot, and in centuries past an important industrial hub, it’s been buffed and polished, becoming a hip, open-space £100 million shopping destination in the heart of the tech village. Jazz-funk pumps from a record store, tumbling down the arches which house the complex’s chic, independent shops. The outdoor space is plentiful – keeping the two-metre rule is a breeze.
Despite the low turnout, trade is doing relatively well: rather than the office workers stopping for business lunches, it’s dedicated shoppers who while away their afternoons visiting the cool stores and dining spaces. Without the workforce craving its daily lunch and caffeine fix, businesses are adapting to a slower, steadier flow of customers. Sandwich shop Sons and Daughters, which reopened in mid-June, is even bucking current trends. “We started off quiet, but with other businesses shut, we’ve ended up taking more than before,” says Natalie Grady, who works at the shop. “There’s no lunch hour rush anymore, but it’s helped that it’s been summer, you end up with more coming out, happy to grab food and sit outside.”
The nearest bar now stands as a takeaway craft beer shop. That too, is coping well despite there being no Friday night work drinks. “We were one of the first to reopen and there was no one around,” explains Simon Brown, co-owner of House of Cans. “But now there’s more and more people. They like the outdoor space and that it’s relaxed. We might not get the 6pm drinkers now, but we still had a better June than in 2019.”
However, even by Friday afternoon standards, the area’s market stalls are dead; alongside the shuttered sandwich shops and empty restaurants on Euston Road, it’s a closer indication of the downturn in business around King’s Cross. “We opened at 11am – some interest but no sales,” explains Dorota Szelagowska, owner of homeware brand Manufactured Cultures. “With many working from home, Friday isn’t a huge shopping day. We’re more reliant on the weekend and locals doing their shopping.”
Cradled beneath Coal Drop Yard’s kissing rooftops is Samsung’s sparkling exhibition centre. Showcasing the tech giant’s latest wares, it’s akin to a gadget-laden IKEA, with art-displaying 4K television screens, dry-cleaning wardrobes, smart fridges and, of course, hands-free sanitising stations. With workers and graduates absent, footfall remains very low – there are more staff than there are customers. “We opened about a month ago,” the tour guide tells me. “What do you expect? It’s been very quiet.”
The venue overlooks one of Facebook’s three new offices being constructed in the area. But it’s hard hats, rather than office lanyards, that can be spotted around Lewis Cubitt Park below. It’s here, too, that a third Google office will be built alongside new retail and residential spaces – it’s the future heart of London’s Silicon Valley. But the only ones stopping by are sunbathers, soaking up the rays along the canal.
Facebook has stated its employees won’t be returning to the office for the rest of the year. Google, meanwhile, has now extended working from home until July 2021. With campuses empty, businesses wary of returning to the office and tech firms content to ride out the virus at home, will these shiny new King’s Cross buildings ever be filled? Some local businesses are sceptical. “I wonder if offices will be back this year – or at all,” muses Brown. “Particularly with tech and creative companies, the lockdown has proven that remote working can be productive. I’d imagine there’d be nervous landlords out there, wondering if their tenants will be downsizing.”
Grady agrees. “I heard Google and Facebook have said that employees can all work from home. It feels weird that they’re building a massive new Google building with that in mind.”
However, Anthea Harries, head of assets at King’s Cross developer Argent LLP, remains confident the area can still flourish. “While office workers are key customers for our shops, bars and restaurants, King’s Cross is an eclectic neighbourhood, home to students and a thriving residential community,” she says. “We’re proud to be a hub for tech businesses. All of our offices are open and occupiers are returning to their workplaces, with each business taking an approach which is right for them and their employees.”
Google did little to dispel the question mark surrounding whether its new offices are going to stand empty once they are finally finished. A spokesperson for the company said that they didn’t have specific information on when its current UK offices might reopen.
Shields, however, is looking forward to when things eventually get back to a more ‘normal,’ and highlights the importance of maintaining a base in what she hopes will, one day, probably long after August 1, be a thriving tech and knowledge village once more. “Our offices are the epicentre of the collaboration, bonding and ideas sharing that fuels innovation. Returning to the office part-time in recent weeks has already reconnected us to the King’s Cross community. I don’t believe we’ll see the permanent demise of the office – or of the vibrancy of King’s Cross – anytime soon.”
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