Personal mission to develop site as city’s five-star urban quarter

Rick De Blaby
Rick De Blaby
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RICK de Blaby, the chief executive of property company MEPC, feels very strongly about Wellington Place.

He took control of the site in 2007 and secured planning permission for a major mixed use development on the largest site under single ownership in Leeds.

“This has been my baby right from the outset,” he told the Yorkshire Post. “All of this is intensely personal.

“I was adamant that when we had to produce a scheme that we created a great place.

“It’s easy in our world to look at things wholly in real estate eyes, but actually people like living and working in great places and great communities.

“If Wellington Place is going to be a successful long-term investment for us, it has to be the five-star urban quarter for the city.

“That’s absolutely our vision and we aim to get there.”

He is in talks with “six or seven” prospective occupiers for Wellington Place, which may or may not include the professional services firms in Leeds known to have issued requirements for new office space.

They include accountants PwC and law firms Walker Morris, Squire Sanders, DAC Beachcroft and Shulmans.

He is in competition for their covenants with rival sites Whitehall Plaza, City Square, Broadgate and Sovereign Square, where KPMG has committed to a pre-let development.

MEPC owns, manages and develops property at eight sites across the UK and has assets worth £700m. It sold Granta science park in Cambridge in June for around £127m.

Mr de Blaby said: “We have quite a lot of cash in the business. Part of the reason for doing that was to have available money to carry out development programmes within the estate, the most demanding of which is Leeds in terms of capital.

“This is where we have our most ambitious development plans.”

The message today is that he is working hard to be “shovel ready” by the end of the year; MEPC is going out to tender in the next couple of weeks to find a contractor.

“I have not definitely said I’m going to build it,” he said. “But it’s likely.”

Asked how much he paid for the site, he said: “I can’t remember and would prefer to forget.”

The company shelved its plans for Wellington Place following the financial crisis. But a series of new requirements for office space in the city could kick-start development with a total investment value exceeding £100m.

Mr de Blaby said: “These lease events are a big deal for Leeds. If you look at 2014, 2015, 2016, there are quite a lot coming through with nobody adding to supply in the city.

“That produces some exciting market dynamics. That’s absolutely underpinning our confidence in Wellington Place and why we have put ourselves in a position to have cash available to underpin the scheme we want to do here.”

MEPC did a fundraising in 2011 and has “conservative” levels of debt at around £300m with a loan to value on the estate of sub-40 per cent. Wellington Place is held in equity.

Mr de Blaby added: “A fact of life is that outside central London raising any sort of debt to undertake development is pretty difficult, bordering on impossible.

“It’s a two-edged sword from our point of view. It restricts our ability to raise funds. But we think it restricts our competitors for more than it does us.

“In that sense we have got a potential edge in being able to turn out new buildings like those we are proposing at Wellington Place when others cannot.”

Within the Wellington Place masterplan, Mr de Blaby said work could start soon on three office buildings. The biggest building, 4 Wellington Place, has been designed for one specific occupier and “discussions are ongoing”.

MEPC decided against “shutting the gates” back in 2008 and chose instead to develop the land for community purposes with football pitches and allotments and music festivals.

The exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama visited in the summer when he appeared at the Yorkshire International Business Convention.

Jeff Pearey, letting agent at Jones Lang LaSalle, said: “It’s given the location a focus within the business community. It’s all too easy to turn a development site into a car park and just leave it mothballed.”

Mr de Blaby sees the development of the public realm as part of “a journey to make a great place” at Wellington Place.

CEO at MEPC since 2005, he travels the UK and sees what Leeds is competing against for investment.

He sees the potential in the city with the arrival of Leeds Arena and Trinity Leeds, and believes that the city council is “in a much better place than it was”.

Town Centre in riverside talks

RIVAL property company Town Centre Securities revealed earlier this month that it is in talks with potential office tenants for its Whitehall Riverside site.

The former industrial area is seeing increasing activity.

Town Centre’s chief executive Edward Ziff said: “We are in talks with one or two professional services firms. If we could find the right deals we would start development at Whitehall Riverside.”

KPMG is the prime mover in the pre-let market after agreeing to become anchor tenant of the Sovereign Square development.