Real estate, community and making places for the present

Manhattan Loft Gardens: Image by Skidmore, Owings Merrill LLP — Developer: Manhattan Loft Corporation

In a recent interview, the real estate developer Harry Handelsman said that “the purpose of development is to make community.”

Handelsman is the father of the loft apartment in London, developer of the refurbishment of St Pancras railway station, the Chiltern Firehouse, Hackney Fashion Hub and coming soon, Manhattan Loft Gardens, a 42 storey tower in Statford, London, that will feature three ‘sky gardens’.

Handelsman sits apart from many in the housing sector in the UK in that he builds one-offs, mixes living with entertainment, invests in high quality architecture and creates an unique sense of place.

For Handelsman, development is yes, a way to make money, but more importantly it is a companion at arms to the expression of a larger creative personality — one who owns works of art by James Turrell and Sarah Lucas, studied the Talmud when young, and speaks avidly of how garden squares in cities can counter lifeless “septic places”.

Manhattan Loft Gardens: Image by Skidmore, Owings Merrill LLP — Developer: Manhattan Loft Corporation.

When Handelsman talks ‘community’, what’s unusual is that he’s tuned into individual idiosyncrasy — he speaks often of the generous space that lofts offer to residents “to make their own”. He wants to promote interaction between people in public life but seems to seek it less through framed spaces and stages, and more through vistas for people to move through: squares for residents to walk — and maybe let their dog do the leading — and lobbies, hotels and cafes to move through to get to where they live. He wants people “to go into a place that is super-animated”, as he puts it.

Just now, I’m advising several real estate developers in the UK and abroad on developing ways to engage and involve existing and future residents and tenants in the places that they’re making. I am neither an architect nor urban designer but have worked with many property developers, local authorities, social housing companies and public agencies on developing communities, creating new social ventures, finding and founding ways in which people can belong to and benefit from the places in which they live.

Inscape Meditation Studio, New York. Founder: Khajak Keledjian — Ph: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

In recent times, I’ve become a bit of a junkie for sanctuary in cities, for places and experiences that act as havens or a refuge for people, combining consumerism and convenience or that sit alongside these two values.

I want to mine the fact that urbanites are diverse but share common passions, pain points, expectations and a hunger for the new.

If places can help bring an end to boredom and loneliness, much like Netflix’s commercial strategy, great.

If word of mouth, rather than marketing, can be the distributor, perfect, since promoter costs in the making of places can be high, with little commensurate effect on lifetime customer value.

And if we can create places that enable people to be free to choose their own lives and identity, even better, since life tends to work better if people are in control their own lives and experiences are acquired and accumulated naturally, much like stories that seamlessly arc into people’s lives.

Inscape Meditation Studio, New York — Founder: Khajak Keledjian. Ph: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

I met Harry Handelsman last week and what is interesting is that sanctuary seems for him less about removing people from everyday life, and more about providing them with busy experiences that compound the value of those moments when all is more quiet.

Handelsman doesn’t seem particularly interested in anticipating or forcing interaction between people — for example, through co-working space, residents associations, mutual endeavour. He is looking to give people simply a place to sit, eat, and work — but a special place at that — interleaved with travellers (at St Pancras), over-nighters (Chiltern Firehouse), hotel guests and dog-walkers (Manhattan Loft Gardens).

Yes, these are places that cater to rich people. Yes, these are places that are Instagrammable. And yes, Handelsman is obviously not captive to the same constraints as publicly-listed housebuilders, or funds obliged to sell apartments off-plan to punters in The Peninsula Hong Kong.

Manhattan Loft Gardens: Image by Skidmore, Owings Merrill LLP — Developer: Manhattan Loft Corporation.

But for all of the exclusivity and idiosyncrasy of the product, Handelsman’s ethic expresses certain values and holds insight that I think is useful to everyone involved in making places and looking to support people and their well-being through urban development.

It costs a lot to buy or rent a property in cities now and there can be value in providing a diversity and depth of experience to people — and not just the binary option of either cheap-as-chips economy or fiddly added features.

While more and more storytelling is being told through recording on mobile phones, in a vertical, rather than horizontal format, new densities, global investment and other factors are conspiring to make vertical living and community a necessity in the future — which makes Manhattan Loft Gardens at 95, 280 and 400 feet up such an inspired idea.

Handelsman feels like he’s striving towards an utopia that isn’t removed from humanity. His message: utopia and peace need not be found in another time or place. They can be found here, now and living in the present.

David Barrie is a regeneration director and advisor. More at LinkedIn. Manhattan Loft Corporation is not the developer of the Inscape Meditation Studio, New York.