The regeneration game

When the economic crash hit, property developers found the very foundations of their industry shook to the core. Many decided that the financial rewards no longer outweighed the risks and bowed out of the game before too much damage was done. Others had to dust themselves off when their enterprises collapsed at their feet signalling game over. A brave few however, had a game plan that enabled them to withstand the shock and come out victorious. Harry Handelsman tells Stacey Sheppard how his approach to property development is about more than just winning the game.

When Harry Handelsman came to the UK, he brought with him a wealth of experience and inspiration that he had gained from his international upbringing. Born in Germany and raised in France, Belgium, the US and Canada, he had been fortunate enough to have encountered a wealth of different cities, cultures, styles and ways of living.

Upon reaching London, Handelsman had already decided that property development was the career for him. “I arrived in London in the early 1990s and I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he says. “I totally threw myself in to it, learning as much as I could about every aspect of development. I had the idea and the drive right from the start, but it took a while for the knowledge and experience to catch up.”

The idea that Handelsman refers to is one which he first happened upon whilst living in the US and one which enabled him to set up his own successful property business. “When I lived in New York in the 70s, a fashionable artist friend of mine took over an abandoned industrial building in the SoHo district and turned it into his creative space,” he says.

“Before long, lots of artists and creative types were doing it. The tall ceilings and huge lateral spaces were completely different to anywhere that I had lived before, and with them came a completely different way of living that I thought was just fantastic. I knew that I wanted to create this style of living in my favourite city in the world – London. That was how the idea for Manhattan Loft Corporation came about.”

Today, Handelsman’s company is one of Britain’s most innovative property companies and boasts an impressive portfolio of residential, commercial, mixed use and industrial developments. But his early foray into London’s property market was not without risks. When he was starting out, loft living was a completely new concept but Handelsman had a feeling that his plan to bring this new style of living to London would be a success.

“I just knew that London was ready for something different,” he says. “I knew that there would be others out there like me who would fall in love with this cool way of living.” Since the inception of Manhattan Loft Corporation, Handelsman has continued to push boundaries and challenge conventions and preconceptions. The company, he says, aims to address the needs of individuals as opposed to the needs of the market.

“Every project we have ever done has been a break away from the norm, either in the location of the development, or in the architecture, or in the design or in all three. We gave Londoners a choice not only in where they lived, but how they lived,” he explains.

But property development for Handelsman has always been about more than simply developing properties. Whilst profit is an obvious driving force in his game plan – he wouldn’t be such a successful businessman if it wasn’t – Handelsman has more personal reasons for selecting the developments he chooses to work on, many of which are old or industrial buildings.

“I love the architecture, I love the strength of them, I love their history and I love the locations that they are found in,” he says passionately. “The fact that they are often so unloved appeals to me even more as I can transform them back into something that people adore. There are many factors involved when choosing what to work on, but ultimately the numbers do have to stack up.”

Handelsman has been involved with some extremely ambitious, and some would say risky, projects that other developers have shied away from. But what is it that gives him the drive and determination to succeed where others fear to tread? “That is just how I am made,” he says. “I don’t want to sit down and relax and look back on what I have created, I want to look forward, to keep looking for the next opportunity, the next challenge.”

However, the challenge of developing a property doesn’t just revolve around restoring buildings to their former glory. For Handelsman, property development is just as much about regenerating entire areas as it is about breathing new life into old buildings.

He says: “Manhattan Loft Corporation was investing in areas that no one else wanted to touch because they were too risky. Back in the 90s, Clerkenwell was simply an area that you passed through in order to get to the other side of town, and King’s Cross was as well known for its seedy underbelly as it was for its train station. What we bring is conviction, investment and belief, and that encourages others to follow.”

The most challenging project that Handelsman has ever worked on, and perhaps the biggest gamble of his career to date, is the recently completed restoration and redevelopment of St Pancras Chambers. Overlooking the Eurostar platforms in King’s Cross, Sir George Gilbert Scott’s great architectural marvel has been converted into a 244-room luxury hotel and 67 luxury flats at a cost of £200 million.

Speaking about his work on the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Handelsman says: “The building is just so beautiful and so astounding, that being a part of bringing it back to life has been a privilege. We worked so closely with English Heritage to ensure that it was restored as faithfully as possible to look exactly as it would have done when it was built in 1873.”

One of the most exciting new developments on the horizon for Manhattan Loft Corporation though is not a restoration but a new build project. “In October we launch the final phase of our Fitzrovia Apartments on Bolsover Street in Fitzrovia, W1,” he says. “It is such a fabulous area – so much character, quite bohemian and yet very sophisticated. There are so few new build developments in that part of London that it makes ours even more exciting.”