Why London’s abandoned Zone One is becoming a hipster playground

Netil House, a community of studios, event spaces and retail units on the fringes of London Fields
The founder of Netil House, a vibrant cultural hub in East London, says the concept could be airdropped into the city centre - Netil House

As the nights draw in, more and more lights are turning off in Zone One.

London’s offices are emptying. Vacancies in the West End, the City and Canary Wharf have reached a 30-year high as more companies commit to flexible working patterns. The equivalent of 60 Gherkins’ worth of office space lies abandoned, gathering dust.

Some of these offices will be transformed into apartments, while others will live a new life as hotels. Premier Inn’s owner, Whitbread, recently acquired two former office blocks in Farringdon and Moorgate. The City of London Corporation, which governs the district, says as many as 20 per cent of the district’s empty buildings could be transformed this way.

A Shoreditch-inspired food market in Seven Dials, Covent Garden
A Shoreditch-inspired food market in Seven Dials, Covent Garden - Alamy Stock Photo

It isn’t just offices lying empty. Some of London’s flagship stores, like Debenhams, Topshop and Miss Selfridge on Oxford Street, closed during or shortly after the pandemic and many remain unoccupied. Never in recent (non-pandemic) memory has central London been filled with so much empty space. What to do with it all? The answer may lie in Zone Two.

On the fringes of London Fields, just off Broadway Market, a Brutalist office block once occupied by a college and council offices has been transformed into a vibrant cultural hub. Netil House hosts a community of studios, event spaces and retail units, and even has its own radio station, with the rooftop bar Netil 360 one of the best spots for a craft beer with a view in East London. The founder says the concept could be airdropped into the city centre.

“Our success at Netil House illustrates the exciting, dynamic environment that could be replicable in Zone One,” said Leo Lawson-O’Neil, Founder of Eat Work Art, the company behind Netil.

Leo Lawson-O’Neil is the founder of Eat Work Art, the company behind Netil
Leo Lawson-O’Neil is the founder of Eat Work Art, the company behind Netil - Leo Lawson-O’Neil

“With the changes in demand from traditional occupiers, opportunities are increasing for this kind of transformation which could lead to an increase in the vibrancy of a community atmosphere in the neighbourhoods of Central London, which is exciting.”

South of the river, Peckham Levels, which opened in 2017, has made innovative use of an old Sainsbury’s car park, transforming it into a cultural hub with exhibitions, street food and screenings of films and sports events. All with sweeping views of the city. Do they have their sights on a central move?

Preston Benson, Founder of Really Local Group, which operates multiple retrofit sites across the UK, including Catford Mews and Peckham Levels, said: “We’ve proven these spaces can be better utilised by and for the local community. As the capital’s working landscape changes post-pandemic, we’re actively seeking out opportunities to return these buildings to cultural and community use.”

The creeping “Shoreditch-ification” of Zone One is already happening. In 2019, the street food market Kerb overhauled an old banana and cucumber storage warehouse and filled it with some of London’s most exciting street food sellers. It sounds like the sort of thing you’d find in, say, Dalston or Hackney Wick, but this was in Seven Dials, Covent Garden.

Combining street eats, cocktails and an indoor mini-golf course, Swingers West End is nestled just off Oxford Circus
Combining street eats, cocktails and an indoor mini-golf course, Swingers West End is nestled just off Oxford Circus - Swingers West End

“Faced with fluctuating demand and spiralling costs across the industry, landlords need to recognise the value of great hospitality and leisure acting as a flag bearer for Zone One and work with existing and future tenants to further incentivise their commitment,” said Ian Dodds, Managing Director of Kerb. They have recently launched three new Kerb+ lunch markets across the city.

A similar kind of thing, Market Halls, can be found in a prime position on Terminus Place, opposite London Victoria station, and it also has an outpost in the old BHS site on Oxford Street. Swingers crazy golf is a resident on the same plot.

“Companies who spend less time together in the traditional office environment are placing more emphasis on out-of-office socialising, in venues like ours,” said Matt Grech-Smith, CEO and co-founder of the Institute of Competitive Socialising.

Some of London’s empty spaces are being put to use for ephemeral purposes. Secret Cinema organises large-scale pop-up events across the city. In 2013 it put on a recreation of the Shawshank Redemption, which converted a disused school in Homerton into a prison. Sofar Sounds is another, organising intimate gigs across the city in everywhere from living rooms to top-floor offices.

Matt Grech-Smith is CEO and co-founder of the Institute of Competitive Socialising, the brainchild behind Swingers
Matt Grech-Smith is CEO and co-founder of the Institute of Competitive Socialising, the brainchild behind Swingers

“Spaces within central London are becoming increasingly multi-purpose with companies and landlords looking for ways to inject vibrancy,” said Kaz Komolafe, UK Regional Director of Sofar Sounds. “More recently, Sofar is hosting shows across Zone One – in Waterloo, Shoreditch, Aldgate and Hoxton – as businesses look to find alternative ways to use their space when they are sitting empty.”

Elsewhere in the city, London’s traditional industry is being nudged out of the centre and replaced with cultural sights. In the coming years the traders at Smithfield, London’s biggest meat market, will move to Dagenham Dock, along with the fishmongers of Billingsgate Market, as part of a £1 billion project. In its place the Museum of London will move into the Smithfield Market site in Farringdon, which has been in operation here since medieval times.

Further east, Canary Wharf is already preparing for the next phase of its history as HSBC and other big-name businesses desert the district. A new lifestyle hotel (Tribe), an immersive art space (Illusionaries) and the arrival of some of London’s best food offerings like Dishoom and Mercato Metropolitano, hint at a future – much like in the City – where the experience economy could take centre stage.

Over the next decade, Zone One could up the ante when it comes to the visitor experience for inbound travellers and people coming down for a weekend break. And, somewhat ironically, as empty office spaces are renovated and reopen with exciting new functions, there will never have been a better time to work in the centre.