In with the new: Interview with David Choules, chairman of developer North Point Global
Words by Natasha Young
In recent months work has begun to transform Liverpool’s Chinatown – home to Europe’s oldest Chinese community.
Phase one of a three-stage, £200 million regeneration scheme named ‘New Chinatown’ is now underway, putting the wheels in motion to eventually deliver hundreds of new homes alongside brand new retail and commercial units and a hotel.
Your Move talks to David Choules, chairman of developer North Point Global, to find out how the project is expected to evolve, what it will mean for its surrounding communities and the wider city centre, and whether Brexit will have any impact.
Now that phase one work has begun on site, how is the project progressing so far?
There’s another three weeks of the piling stage of groundworks, then the frame contractor will start and will work on the pile caps and foundations. He starts in the third week in July so we’ll see [the development] come out of the ground in the not so distant future.
Sales are going well. At the last count we’d sold 46 out of 127 residential units, although there may be slightly more.
We launched it to the market about six weeks ago so it’s gone quite quickly, although in all honesty I don’t think it’s gone as quickly as we thought it would go. Brexit, the anticipation, the unknown and the situation we’ve got now most certainly softened interests. We came out the first weekend and sold 15 units in one weekend. The next months there were 15 and seven and it’s trundled along at about 10 units per month.
We’ve got the funding to see it delivered so we’re not anxious. We just have to be patient and see what happens.
In light of the vote for Brexit, what is the outlook for the scheme moving forward?
We’ve seen things slow down and we just need to be calm.
We’ve got to track where sterling goes, the pound relative to where it is in the marketplace, and it’s up and down like a yo-yo at the moment.
I think once things stabilise, the repositioning may make the UK a more attractive investment. At the end of the day we’ve got so much infrastructure and so many good things going on, particularly in Liverpool with the likes of the academic side and the hospital and the amount of energy the city has been putting in.
We’ve got to back ourselves, back the city and back the scheme and we want to see it being delivered. It’s going to breathe so much good life into the area, linking the Baltic Triangle to Ropewalks with a commercial offering which is really exciting.
We’ve got 113,000 sq ft of small units which have been snapped up, and will create a really punchy bazaar with lots of life and vibrancy.
Can you tell us anything about the businesses who have taken up those commercial units?
They’re individuals, investors. We’ve launched it in China and Hong Kong and it’s been well received.
It’s about extending Chinatown and refreshing what hasn’t had a lot of investment for a long time.
Through the Tier 1 entrepreneur’s visa programme, with each commercial space the interest is to acquire a small unit that’s affordable and although that doesn’t give a visa, by then bringing the business into Liverpool, running that business for five years and being an active part of it they can then apply for a visa.
To leave China it may take six to eight weeks to get a visa and Brexit is not going to affect that. That’s why people want to up sticks or bring commerce to this area and off the back of it get far less hampered travel around the world.
“it’s about extending chinatown and refreshing what hasn’t had a lot of investment for a long time”
What kind of commercial and retail offer are you looking to bring to the area?
The planning gives us permission for A1 (shops), A2 (financial and professional services), A3 (restaurants and cafés), A4 (drinking establishments), B1 (business), B2 (general industrial), D1 (non-residential institutions) and D2 (assembly and leisure) so as many uses, however because they’re all leaseholds there will be controls to avoid, say, a line of fish and chip shops.
There’s a gate they’ve got to go through and we won’t unreasonably withhold that but we don’t want to suddenly see uses becoming something which are not what the city needs or wants.
Where has the funding for the New Chinatown scheme come from?
We’ve self-funded the land acquisition because two sites were owned by Liverpool City Council and the third site was owned by Urban Splash – it used to be called the Tribeca scheme.
The construction is funded through the retail investment scheme, so an investor will buy and deposit generally up to 50% and that 50% is then released to fund the construction.
How will the project as a whole take shape?
From October next year [phase one] will be finished. The next two phases have only got outline planning but, through the discussions we’re having the moment, we’ve got housing associations interested, PRS (Private Rented Sector) funds are interested in bringing external PRS in, we have a hotelier interested and we have residential developers and funds interested.
We’ll choose which pathway we’re going to take to ensure it’s delivered in the near future and that will then trigger the detailed planning process.
At the moment with all the ancillary stuff and ground investigation works, for instance we have a railway tunnel which runs along Great George Street and the vent shaft which has to maintain being open at all times, there are discussions going on which will affect planning and the design.
In terms of what sits above the ground we have some real must-haves including the walk through, the public space, the animation; there’s no point creating monoliths with no reason to pass through.
BLOK Architecture is the architect and is working it up at a go-slowly stage at my bequest until we know how it’s going to be funded, and then we’ll crystalise the detailed planning.
I’m sure the council and others want to see it moving quicker, but we’re not just going to go into phases two and three. To actually get detailed planning we’ve probably got to find another £1m which you can’t magic up, so you need to take your time.
I think by 2020 we’ll be finished. It’s a three or four-year programme and we’re not sitting on our thumbs.
How many homes will be delivered overall, and who will they be for?
It’s 791 homes at the moment but the mix may change. They’ll be partly for homeowners, so we’ll have local people wanting to buy them.
The design of each phase has a generous reception area so [they may attract] post-graduates and young professionals on the rental market who expect a little more than just an apartment. A limited concierge service will take deliveries and organise things for them.
The townhouses in the scheme are a slightly different proposition, so it’s varied.
Also, particularly with the later phases where you’ve got 100,000 sq ft of small broken up units, they’re not designed as work and live but people are investing in the work and taking the live, so we’ve got owner occupiers in respect of the commercial proposition as well as the residential proposition.
How will New Chinatown work alongside the present Chinatown?
We’ve had a number of meetings with the community and elders. They’ve really embraced [New Chinatown] because they’ve seen it as a piece of scrubland for an awful long time. They want to see it delivered first and foremost.
At the moment they’ve got a very small office meeting place, so we’ve spoken about a community place as part of the ground floor offering within phase three. It’d be a bit of a museum, information centre, meeting place and flexible community space.
Part of our phase two and phase three proposition is bringing in that as part of the design, which we hadn’t considered when we got outline planning.
Why is now the right time to transform this site into New Chinatown?
It’s an area we see booming, and in respect of the city centre coming down through the docks and into the Baltic area, we saw it as a gateway opportunity.
From the commercial side it’s a good area to be looking at too. It’s far more developer friendly to be taking brownfield sites rather than regenerating city centre sites which are more costly per sq ft.