Does Neighborhood Rebranding Work?
International property developers have good reason to want to alter consumer sentiments about obscure or less desirable neighborhoods in cities all over the world. They're in the business of selling real estate, after all. Three developer-led neighborhood rebranding efforts in London, Beirut, and Milan offer a handy case study of whether efforts to rename or assign a new identity to a place (efforts which often involve large sums of money) are ever actually worth it.
The Shard, London's much-publicized newest skyline addition, lives in the south London district of Southwark. The district is familiar to London residents for its Borough neighborhood, home to a rollicking open-air farmers' market that is a main weekend attraction in the city. Sellar Property Group, backed by a consortium of Qatari investors, is redeveloping a large swath of the surrounding area, centered around the old London Bridge Station. Convinced that neither Borough nor Southwark were strong enough brand names, Stellar invented the moniker 'London Bridge Quarter,' after the landmark bridge and station that feed into the construction site.
The neighborhood's official website describes London Bridge Quarter as "the heart of London."
Irvine Sellar, chairman of Sellar Property Group, sees the London Bridge Quarter name "as both a strong brand name and a concept has been a magnet and a catalyst to rejuvenate the area."
"Major train stations and bridges dominate London neighborhoods," says Alan Baxter, CEO and founder of Alan Baxter Integrated Design, who for 12 years consulted on the how to redevelop the London Bridge area from a minor terminus to a major city station. Nowadays London's railway stations are powerful civic buildings; no longer dirty and crime riddled, but vibrant points of exchange that encourage a new type of user, nearly 60 million annually to London Bridge alone. "Train stations are embedded in our minds," says Baxter.
A London Bridge Quarter market (left); Plans for a new pedestrian space (right). Courtesy London Bridge Quarter
Yet London residents like Eric Guibert aren't as convinced that the rebranding effort will be a tipping point for businesses and buyers. "The name 'London Bridge Quarter' seems unnecessarily long. Adding the word 'quarter' is an overused corporate cliche," says Guibert. "I wouldn't be surprised if the railway station ends up being known as 'The Shard.'"
Tina Jernberg has been a secretary at Guy's Hospital, directly across from London Bridge, for seven years. Windows off the office she works in look out onto Sellar Group's construction site, where the words LONDON BRIDGE QUARTER are emblazoned everywhere.
A map of the proposed area, courtesy London Bridge Quarter
"What's London Bridge Quarter?," asks Jernberg. "The name sounds cozy, but it confuses me. I know the place as London Bridge or The Shard. Our patients call it London Bridge when they ask me where our clinic is. For me, the area will always just be a train station and the new name probably won't change the way I use the neighborhood."
The elements at work here do seem a bit like too many big personalities in a room. Still, it's easy to see what the developers were thinking here. London Bridge is a local icon that travels well. Whether Londoners will ever embrace the 'Quarter' remains to be seen.
In other cities the local elements that developers can magnify and market don't always work in their favor.
Since the early 1990s, ambitious developers in Lebanon have aspired to create utopian communities. They used corporate design models that often mislay the cultural plot of neighborhoods. Downtown Beirut is the totemic example of this scenario.
Following the Lebanese Civil War in 1994, then-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri established a development company, Solidere, with the expressed interest of unifying the war-ravaged capital and attracting foreign investment. The company restored around 200 buildings of Ottoman and French Mandate origins, and in exchange received land rights to 1,650 real estate lots then valued at $1.17 billion. Among Solidere's developments in the bombed out shell of downtown Beirut was Saifi Village, a mundane cluster of 16 low-rise residential buildings with street-level commercial spaces.
A map of Beirut's downtown, courtesy of Solidere
Instead of renaming Beirut's downtown, Solidere assigned it an identity, albeit a convoluted one. The new buildings were embellished with details that invoke the ancient Pheonician and Ottoman civilizations. Public squares and promenades were constructed around recently exhumed Phoenician ruins. Solidere pushed ahead developing gated communities and office buildings, placing less importance on creating a strong place name and the bulk of their energy imposing an impartial identity. To make this development work, Solidere had to convince Beirut's local consumers, who were and occasionally continue to be divided along religious and political lines.
Ten years on, large pockets of real estate in the new downtown Beirut sit empty, dust collecting in the windows of the tallest towers.
As Robert Saliba, a professor of architecture at the American University of Beirut, underlined in a recent paper, the revised 'architectural language' of the city center ended up giving the impression that it had commodified the heritage and history of the old Beirut. In its quest to create social cohesion and build a brand that wouldn't offend, Saliba believes Solidere neglected to consider how residents might experience the new city.
A Solidere construction site, by Reuters (left); Downtown Beirut, courtesy of robertinBeirut/Flickr
Residents like 35-year-old Reda Reda are less concerned with this point.
"I am drawn to the new downtown, but I don't think the Phoenician references have bearing on this in any way," says Reda. "In the new downtown there aren't pitted buildings or triple parked cars and unbearable traffic. Sure it's a place where only the super wealthy live, but I notice more and more that people from all classes and sects are coming here with their children. And slowly more affordable restaurants and shops are moving here to meet this demand. The new downtown is not the old Beirut. That's why I like it."
Opinions aside, Solidere hasn't yet managed to regain the investment it made here. And urban historians of Beirut like Saliba find fault in Solidere's selective choosing of which history to remember and forget. The end product is a downtown of mostly sterilized copies of the original and imagined architecture that has failed to resonate, at least in the short term, with buyers. Rather than transcend the city's historical status, Solidere transformed it so that its meaning is no longer in sync with the speed of the aggregate Lebanese mindset. In the simplest terms, their rebranding tactics aren't entirely grounded in reality — what buyer relates to a 3,000 year-old civilization?
In many respects, Beirut and the region it occupies is still fairly volatile. The city oscillates between periods of relative stability and unforeseen violence. Tensions like the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, where Beirut and southern Lebanon were heavily shelled by Israel, are obstacles to downtown investors both foreign and domestic. For Solidere, it's not so much a question of how consumers will warm to downtown's reassigned identity. It's more a matter of how long Beiruit and the region can maintain some continuum of stability for buyers to make up their minds.
The reality on the ground in Milan couldn't be more different. Developers here operate in a politically stable environment. The city is synonymous with its finance, fashion, and design sectors, themselves longstanding and reputable brands.
Since 1881, Milan's historic fairground and exhibition center, Zona Fiera, was a collection of humdrum industrial spaces. These buildings were dismantled and moved to Milan's periphery in 1997 by a conglomerate of Italian developers to make room for what is currently the largest urban revitalization project in continental Europe. It includes at least a dozen condominiums and office buildings designed by famous architects like Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind.
Banking on Milan's strong fashion identity, developers initially dubbed the renewed quarter "Citta della Moda," or City of Fashion. But according to project chairman and CEO Claudio Artusi, the developers later changed the name to CityLife because the project was more than fashion and they believe branding it with an English name would attract a larger foreign audience.
Plans for a new apartment building by Zaha Hadid in the old Zona Fiera, courtesy Zaha Hadid
Milano residents like Stefano Paleari, 31, don't associate the old Fiera neighborhood with the luxury lifestyle that CityLife promises. It was an urban enclave of perfunctory exhibition halls, useful every now and then to host events, but most of the time, vacant. The area had a lifelessness about it. The gamble in rebranding Zona Fiera is trying to get buyers to forget its name and reputation and warm to the euphemisms and limitless promise that CityLife is packaging and selling.
Dr. Myeria Georgiou, a specialist in transitional communication and cosmopolitan identities at the London School of Economics, worries that by renaming Zona Fiera, developers risk detachment from their domestic market if the name fails to engage both buyers and Milan residents.
A proposed park, via CityLife
But in many ways the point of CityLife is that it's not the old Milan. Developers have reinforced this by commissioning famous architects to create bold new buildings with low carbon footprints in a neighborhood that is entirely pedestrian. They've also erected huge expanses of park space and developed an on-site, one stop shopping center of 100 new luxury retail spaces, restaurants and bars. On the last detail, the shopping center, developers are still appealing to the enormous consumer drive within Milan's culture, a way of loosely linking the old Milan to the new.
Rebranding neighborhoods will always be a thorny patch for developers. And the varying cultural and historical elements of every city make it impossible to apply a single global or corporate model. Where a neighborhood is politically unstable or its reputation too deeply tarnished, not even the cleverest identity makeover can save it.