Party's over for towers launched on high hopes

WHEN the world's most famous designer jetted into Leeds to help launch Lumiere, it was amid a blazing fanfare for what was to be Western Europe's tallest residential tower.

Philippe Starck joined a crowd of 1,000 VIPs who were entertained by fire-eaters, a firework display and stilt walkers, while drinking bubbly and feasting their eyes on naked women covered in fruit and chocolate.

Now, 19 months later, the party is well and truly over and plans for the soaring glass skyscrapers stretching 560ft above the city centre have been mothballed until the credit crunch is over.

Work on the 225m development and its 992 apartments is on hold and while some doubt that it will ever rise from the ground, the man behind the scheme is confident that it will.

Kevin Linfoot, chairman of KW Linfoot, is developing the site with Frasers Property Developments Ltd and Yoo, which is part-owned by Starck. He says that the decision to halt construction just as the foundations were finished yesterday was sensible and added that it would be commercial suicide to continue in the current economic climate.

"We've left the development at a stage where we can trigger it off at the press of a button, we are not walking away from it. I'm not into letting people down and would not put myself in that position.

"We'll see what happens with the economy. I think it could improve by November."

"The positive aspect in all this is that the price of building should come down," said Mr Linfoot who has just completed a scheme at Walthamstow dog track in London and is ploughing ahead with plans for his Manyoo development in Salford.

He is also preparing to put in a planning application to build 800 key worker apartments on Regent Street, Leeds, and says his team will continue selling Lumiere apartments off plan.

Meanwhile, some analysts said the shock mothballing of the landmark Lumiere scheme had come as a result of developers pursuing a doomed flat-building strategy. They warned that more developers would be forced into a rethink as the economic downturn continued.

Jonathan Riley, managing partner of accountants Grant Thornton in Leeds, said: "We should be building properties that people want to live in rather than speculative developments in the hope that there will be enough professional people to live in them.

"It is an opportunity for developers and banks to reappraise what is happening."

A drop in property values in Leeds had exceeded a nationwide fall of six to seven per cent over the last year, Mr Riley added.

"And the properties that have seen in the biggest drop are apartments – and especially here."

Ian Williams, policy director of Leeds Chamber of Commerce, said the mothballing of Lumiere had come as a shock.

"It is very disappointing news. Lumiere was to be an iconic building and I was really looking forward to it.

"But the credit crunch is being felt everywhere. It underlines how things have taken a significant downturn in a short space of time."

Andrew Carter, deputy leader of Leeds City Council and cabinet member for city development and regeneration, said: "This won't be the last of the bad news.

"Now we have to face up to some difficult decisions for the private sector and the public sector.

"We are in a very difficult position across the UK but Leeds will weather the downturn."

Nigel McClea, chairman of Marketing Leeds, said: "KW Linfoot was right to adopt a prudent attitude in the current economic climate, but the good news is that it is only a postponement, not a cancellation. Lumiere will raise at some date in the future, and, in the mean time Leeds will continue, as it has always done. Leeds remains a great city with many facets."

Meanwhile, the man who built his empire on property, is keeping himself busy and sees falling land prices as an opportunity.

Mr Linfoot said: "I'm spending my time hunting for other sites."