A growing urban trend combining creative post-industrial neighborhoods, high-tech “Innovation Districts,” and trendy tourism infrastructure is fully realized in London with the opening of Ace Hotel’s first international property.
The gentrification of post-industrial urban districts evolving into creative professional and social hubs in G20 countries worldwide has followed a relatively formulaic pattern over the last four decades.
Often abandoned following the collapse of regional manufacturing, these urban cores are revived beginning with small independent businesses. As development progresses, many of these enclaves eventually morph into high-rent areas anchored by trendy, adaptive reuse hotels.
Such is the case with the opening of Ace Hotel London Shoreditch last year in the booming community of Shoreditch located at the gateway to London’s East End. The neighborhood was once the heart of England’s immigrant worker community and many of their streetfront workshops.
While Shoreditch is indicative of this long trend in modern urban revitalization, it is also part of a newer trend revolving around the rise of the “smart city”—or what the Brookings Institution calls “Innovation Districts.” These high-tech communities are integrating themselves among the aforementioned bohemian burbs, resulting in a complementary zeitgeist of like-minded creative professionals and innovative start-up culture.
In 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the idea of Tech City UK to brand Europe’s largest tech cluster centered around the Old Street Roundabout (or Silicon Roundabout), located just a short walk from Ace Hotel. The fast-growing smart city occupies a wide swath of inner-city commercial districts extending from Shoreditch to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Exporting the Ace Model
The Ace Hotel brand mission has always strived to revitalize underserved buildings and neighborhoods while cultivating partnerships with local small businesses. The 258-room Shoreditch property was previously a rather ignominious-looking Crowne Plaza property, unremarkable in every way. To counter that, Ace worked with area suppliers like Crittall Windows in Essex to integrate more high-quality and locally representative products into the renovation of a building only a decade old.
“We’re doing things a little bit opposite as normal around here,” says Olivia Ross, director of sales & marketing at Ace Shoreditch. “Normally you replace the old with the new. We’re taking out all of the newer stuff and bringing in traditional materials proper to the neighborhood.”
Likewise, Universal Design Studio in Shoreditch, who had never worked on a hotel project before, rebuilt the facade of the building with local Ketley “engineering bricks” like those found in the East End’s heritage buildings.
As expected the Ace Shoreditch lobby embraces the brand’s trademark residential living room vibe with a long community table filled with laptop-and-latte wielding locals and guests. That branches off into the industrial metal-clad lobby bar designed by artist Max Lamb, the buzzy Bulldog Edition coffee shop, and the English modernist Hoi Polloi brasserie. Outside, the Lovage “farm-to-street juice kitchen” serves organic veggie concoctions next door to That Flower Shop.
Upstairs, the level of details in the monochrome guest rooms, each with exposed electrical conduit, day beds and multi-era retro furnishings, is impressive. Ross says during our tour, “We’re constantly adding little bits here and there like this leather change tray designed by Ally Capellino, who’s based just around the corner.”
Other deft touches include custom Revo radios, Rega RP1 turntables in some rooms, Farmers’ bath goodies, and Ace’s signature boxing robes and pencil sharpeners.
Ace Shoreditch does 30% corporate business midweek and it’s about to open what could become London’s most popular meeting space, especially with the fashion, finance and tech crowds. The entire penthouse floor features multiple boardrooms and event space with wraparound windows. There’s also a permanent bar leading out to a long terrace facing the iconic Gherkin building and the rest of downtown London.
Ross says the rooftop is only open for private events due to demand. If anyone questioned that Ace could succeed outside the U.S., the Shoreditch property puts that to rest. During one weekend night in May, the lobby bar was wall-to-wall with well-mannered professional types, making any kind of navigation through the crowd overly ambitious.
“There’s been a lot of pent up demand for somewhere cool to stay in Shoreditch, especially with all of this Tech City happening,” says Ross. “It’s really quite exciting, you should go check out Google’s campus near the Roundabout.”
The Rise of Shoreditch
When Mayor Johnson announced his vision in March for Tech City UK, he did it from the TechHub offices in Google’s Campus London, about a 15-minute walk from Ace. The Google-owned building is filled with tech accelerators, but anyone can visit the underground co-working cafeteria once they’ve registered for free as members.
While co-work spaces are just starting to grow in popularity in the U.S., and they’re usually only open to paying members, it’s a much more prolific and inclusive scene in London.
The indoor/outdoor Google cafeteria is packed with creative types, while the lunch counter serves organic sandwiches for an unheard of low price of four pounds sterling. There’s a large heat map screen showing live mentions of Google-hashtagged social media worldwide, a Device Lab where developers can test their apps over a range of mobile devices, and yes, one foosball table.
The bulk of the creative energy in Shoreditch relating to tourism is bookended by Ace and Google. Walking back toward the hotel through streets where graffiti artist Banksy made his name, you pass BOXPARK, London’s first pop-up shipping container fashion mall, and Prince Charles’ Foundation for Building Community.
Directly across the street from Ace, the new Forge & Co is a social “hot desk” co-work space that includes a restaurant and bar, small lecture hall and an underground art gallery. GM Nathan Dixon-Jones is proud to show off his Panamanian rum, vintage glassware and high-tech Josper charcoal grill during an impromptu tour.
He says there’s a strong collaborative element among local companies to support each other, and then as if on cue, Dixon-Jones recommends a local hangout a few blocks away on Columbia Road.
Tucked away on a side street, the new Printers & Stationers artisanal wine bar has got to be the world’s most casual artisanal wine bar. It is about as local as you can get with some customers sitting on the curb. A waiter named Pablo explains that the old brick building was once a print shop, and before that it was a place for cows to sleep next to the dairy.
“The Ace Hotel is good for business,” he nods, while his toddler son plays soccer in the street with his mom. “Tourists used to only come here for Jack the Ripper tours.”
2013 Tech City UK Report
The U.K. government website released the 2013 Tech City Annual Report last December, illustrating the growth of tech companies operating in the corridor. Some of the findings from the research are reproduced below. For a full copy of the report, click here.
- Between 2009 and 2012, the number of tech/digital companies in London increased 76% growing from 49,969 to 88,215.
- 27% of all job growth in London comes from the tech/digital sector, with approximately 582,000 people now employed by the tech/digital sector in London.
- Between 2009 and 2012, jobs in the tech/digital sector in London grew by 16.6% against an overall growth rate of 0.3% in the U.K.
- From Dec. 2010-Nov. 2013, “Tech City UK” was mentioned in 155,725 tweets.
- From Jan. 2008-Nov. 2013, a total of 5,003 articles referenced Tech City and London.
- Google’s Campus London helped start-ups raise over £34 million ($57.7M) in the 12 months leading up to October 2013.
- Major tech and digital companies have been brought into Tech City in the last three years from global markets including the U.S., Europe and Asia. In recent weeks, U.S. firm Box and social game developer Rekoo have located in London, joining the raft of leading tech companies, among them: Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, FourSquare and Pinterest.