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The Property Interview: Harry Handelsman

Meet Harry Handelsman, the influential property developer responsible for Chiltern Firehouse and the St Pancras Hotel. His next mission – to change the way we live

Anyone who’s anyone on the London socialite scene will see the Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone as a must-go venue for most special occasions. Its stratospheric rise – which has dragged the area with it – is usually put down to owner, André Balazs. However, the modern symbol of the rich and famous would have been but a pipe dream were it not for its original developer; Harry Handelsman knows a good opportunity when he sees one.

“When I identified the Chiltern Firehouse, sure, Marylebone was quite cool, quite interesting, but it didn’t have the pulse of the city. In order to create success, you have to spend much more money than might be seen as necessary. We’re overstaffed, but by doing that, we’re giving the customer an experience they don’t have anywhere else. I think that’s important. Let’s make sure we spend what is required and by spending all that money and spoiling the purchaser or customer, we can make it financially viable. If all my projects were financially unviable I wouldn’t be here having this conversation with you."

“I’m probably prepared to take a risk where other people would think it’s a step too far.”

Handelsman’s CV certainly isn’t one of an orthodox developer. The Munich-born, ex-New-York-now-Londoner isn’t in the industry for a quick buck: “I look at added value. I love this city, it’s really very exciting and there are so many people that can contribute. Chefs can contribute, opening great restaurants, designers can contribute by having an amazing fashion week, and developers can contribute by identifying locations that aren’t perhaps so much in vogue; not because they couldn’t be, but because they’ve been neglected. 

“What I’m interested in is broadening the scope of London; great cities aren’t just about one or two locations. I want to find amazing buildings and develop them in areas that might not be fashionable, but have an infrastructure that is fashionable, and then putting in a lot of effort and making it all happen.”

This is certainly the case with Handelsman’s next big project: Manhattan Loft Gardens is ambitious, to say the least. The 135m, 42-floor tower neighbouring Stratford’s Olympic Village will house 248 flats, a hotel, restaurant, huge lobby, and two cantilevered, open-air gardens midway up. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), who also built Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tower is set to continue the engineering firm’s heritage of redefining what a high-rise should look like. 

Heritage plays a major role in each of Handelsman’s projects. Ealing Studios, for example, was on its last legs before an eleventh-hour rescue: “I’m incredibly proud of Ealing Studios, because my concern is that if I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have probably turned it into a superstore and that would’ve been so sad. 

“It’s a relatively modest studio, but what it has is an aura about it. It’s the oldest working studio in the world, and it has a demand – seven episodes of Downton Abbey – and we’re constantly busy. I’m not necessarily star-struck, but you go there and you see really charming, marvellous people who are there fulfilling a role with a passion, just hanging around, which is nice to observe.”

It’s hard to argue against Handelsman’s track record. Possibly his biggest achievement, the redevelopment of the old St Pancras Grand Midland Hotel, was a disaster waiting to happen, with restoration costs more than doubling during the process, and disagreements over contracts. The result, however, is the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, a flagship for the area’s regeneration.

“This building needed an incredible amount of commitment and expense”, said Handelsman. “It became quite a challenge. But turning it around, for people to really be able to experience this Gilbert Scott masterpiece, was a great achievement.” Over in Stratford, Handelsman is in no doubt as to the undertaking the Loft Gardens creates: “It’s totally ambitious, and people think you’re mad. I don’t have to do it in order to make money. I could’ve just built a lovely tower, like many towers going up in London, but what I want to do is create something that sets the tone; whereby high-rise living doesn’t just become a series of apartments vertically on top of one another. I want to try to introduce a sense of community to a particular building. “I want to create a community where people who are living there say: ‘My God, am I proud to be living here, I feel privileged, I feel great.’ Because I’m building something for you, as opposed to an investor.

“With a loft, you can decide the size of your bedroom, you bathroom, your kitchen. It’s how you want to live. But it’s also the ability of restoring some of the most wonderful buildings, and giving them a new lease of life.” An easy thing to say without any meaning, but the developer has let his actions speak for themselves, refusing to sell to buyers he thought wouldn’t enjoy loft living. In addition, it’s not just the people on the inside that are taken into consideration: the community that lives around a building is an important aspect of the structure’s longevity. “We don’t build just for one thing. Buildings stay for a very long time. If it was just an oasis where everybody within was really happy, but everywhere outside of it was miserable because of the building being there, we wouldn’t do it. It has to really fit; it needs to influence, needs to improve, needs to add value to the community.

“I love this city, and if I’m privileged enough that I can develop something, I’ve got to make sure the city gets better through what I do.”

New York’s loss is London’s gain, it seems. Does Handelsman have any predictions for the Loft Gardens? “I think we’re going to be building the most important tower in Europe. “It’s not just about connectivity, stadiums, apartments and parks; it’s also about culture – the London School of Art is coming there – and it’s going to make an incredible difference to the demographic [of the area]. “The amount of energy, effort and money we’re putting into that project will lead to a new discovery, and that’s what’s really exciting.”