The King's Cross turnaround: How a district ditched its bad image and lured in Google

Steve Alderson works for property developer Argent LLP and is tasked with marketing London's King's Cross. His job is to ensure that outdated perceptions of this area do not dissuade corporates, restaurateurs, retailers or new residents from buying in.

  • King’s Cross Filling Station, which houses the critically acclaimed Shrimpy’s

    King’s Cross Filling Station, which houses the critically acclaimed Shrimpy’s

  • Crowds enjoy the tennis on a summer's day at Granary Square

    Crowds enjoy the tennis on a summer's day at Granary Square

  • Granary Building, home to Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, at dusk

    Granary Building, home to Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, at dusk

  • Pop-up roller rink Skate King’s Cross

    Pop-up roller rink Skate King’s Cross

  • Google released this computer generated mock-up of its new office but later scrapped the design

    Google released this computer generated mock-up of its new office but later scrapped the design

  • An aerial view of the northern end of King's Cross

    An aerial view of the northern end of King's Cross

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Drugs, raves and prostitutes. The title of a new Irvine Welsh novel? Perhaps, but they are all things that were once associated with King’s Cross.

Since the 1970s, this part of London suffered from urban decay and the area to the north of the station was largely a post-industrial wasteland. Sure, there were some popular nightclubs, a go-kart track and a golf driving range, but these sorts of activities didn’t generate significant footfall nor create many jobs.

This lack of enterprise, combined with there being no public spaces and few residential properties, created a potent cocktail; the perfect conditions for anti-social behaviour to fester. Looking back, it seems hard to believe that people didn’t feel safe inside zone one, just fifteen years ago.

In 1999, Argent, LCR and DHL Supply Chain (formerly Exel) pooled their assets and expertise, to create one 67 acre mega site – about the same size as Soho. The first step was refining a vision and then planning and designing how the new and restored buildings and public spaces could play host to everyday city life. Next, stimulating interesting activities in those spaces and buildings that would, in turn, catalyse more activity. 

Early days

Since those early days, my job has been to market King’s Cross. At first people thought we were mad; how were we going to persuade companies to rent office space in King’s Cross? And selling penthouse flats overlooking the Regent’s Canal? Would retailers and restaurateurs really believe that King’s Cross could become a place where there was enough passing trade to support their enterprises? 

Our marketing strategy is about product sampling; getting people to King’s Cross, because the site is our biggest asset. Our audience is enormous - we need to reach not only our potential customers, but also our potential customers’ customers. We need these people to revise their perceptions of King’s Cross and to see it as a place in which they could happily live, work or play. 

Our marketing strategy is about product sampling; getting people to King’s Cross, because the site is our biggest asset.

To achieve the required shift in perception we focus on ensuring people come to King’s Cross to experience the transformation for themselves. Since the development opened in 2011, with King’s Boulevard (the first major new street to open in London for over 100 years) and then Granary Square in 2012, we set about giving people reasons to come here. 

We capitalised early on the nascent street food trend and gave the KERB collective (then eat.st) their first regular pitch. KERB are now a perennial favourite and the breadth and diversity of their offer keeps punters interested and generates column inches too. We worked with forward thinking architects Carmody Groake and the innovative owners of Bistroteque, to re-fashion an old BP garage into a new restaurant and event space.

The result was the King’s Cross Filling Station, which houses the critically acclaimed Shrimpy’s. The restaurant sits alongside a cultural space, which has hosted a collaboration with Everyman Cinema, amongst others.

Recurring theme

Arts and culture are a recurring theme for us. Central Saint Martins were the first organisation to move here in 2011. Creative places are interesting places and people are drawn to them. The 5,000 students breathed creative energy into the area, but we supplemented this with a site specific arts programme, commissioning pieces created for King’s Cross. 

The latest of these was a 542 metre long optical illusion by Felice Varini, which could only be seen in full from one specific spot on the site. This helped to draw people up to discover the area’s rebirth and their subsequent tweets, Instagrams and conversations in pubs have helped to spread the word further.

Events are another way in which we have drawn people to King’s Cross. We bring to life the history of the area through an annual programme; Summer Stories. We held an ice cream festival last year, a nod to the ice wells at King’s Cross that first stored imported Norwegian ice in the Victorian era.

Fifteen years ago the only people who visited King’s Cross, were looking for an altogether less wholesome experience.

This year we hosted an immersive theatrical experience aimed at reviving the same period, complete with Penny farthing races, chimney sweeping lessons and a gin garden. Skate King’s Cross, another initiative this summer, was a stunning pop-up roller rink, a homage to the days when King’s Cross hosted a roller disco in Canvas in the early noughties.

So, people are coming here. Granary Square sits at the heart of the development and with its 1,080 fountains resembles a lido on a hot summer’s day. Skate King’s Cross was a huge success, particularly in PR terms, over 50,000 people came this summer to see the Varini artwork alone and since last year a further 100,000 people have attended events at King’s Cross.

Our social media channels have become the sector benchmark, albeit in an industry which lags behind most others technologically.  And all of these marketing initiatives are generating column inches on the news pages, the comment pages, in the trade press and in consumer titles like Wallpaper*, Time Out and GQ too.

Now this is all very well, but is it impacting on the bottom line? The short answer is yes. Our long term focus on developing a creative and interesting place is now winning early adopters. A wide range of forward thinking organisations have already bought in, including Google, for whom we are building their groundbreaking new UK headquarters. There is still much to do and we need to spread the word further, but we have made a solid start.

So, if you haven’t already, do come and see it for yourself. Fifteen years ago the only people who visited King’s Cross, were looking for an altogether less wholesome experience. We’re pleased to say that now the only fix on sale is the coffee at Caravan. And the only red lights are the ones illuminating the fountains or perched on top of the cranes. 

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