ntil very recently, Phoenix Court was just another of Camden’s anonymous 1960s-era municipal buildings; pokey council flats upstairs, space for the local trade union offices below.
But it has undergone a rather fantastical transformation, one that hints towards a genuinely better future for the whole surrounding neighbourhood.
Of course, Somers Town has seen no shortage of blustering grand projects plonked down on its doorstep recent years, from the arrival of the British Library to the mega sprucing up of King’s Cross or the shiny towering science edifice of the Francis Crick Institute.
But despite no end of well-meaning community outreach, residents have still, often quite rightly, complained that these places are not situated around here for them, rather despite them.
It’s a history as old as the area itself. In the 1750s, a tolled bypass known as New Road was carved through fields to the north of rapidly sprawling London, a kind of early M25. Today Euston Road still follows its route.
One hundred years later, the arrival of three railway termini vital to the economic growth of the capital saw overcrowded slum housing sandwiched between them, the residents often being unceremoniously uprooted and overlooked in the pursuit of yet more industrial development.
The Phoenix Court project signals an approach to squarely breaking the mold of previous centuries of exclusion.
Firstly, Camden Council should be noted for their eco-minded vision here, converting the derelict basement into cycle parking for over 200 bikes with shower facilities, while also installing a new decentralised energy network hub to provide low carbon heating, hot water and electricity to over 500 nearby homes across five estates.
Starting with action on climate is clearly essential if we’re ever to see Somers Town realise its new potential in the coming years, but it is up on the building’s first floor that the staggering scope of this becomes more apparent.
Phoenix Court is also now a hub for some of the UK’s – indeed the world’s – most exciting startup businesses. The beautifully custom-designed communal workspace is the brainchild of LocalGlobe, a venture capital firm run by father and son duo Robin and Saul Klein.
They’ve been investing in early-stage companies for a decade, with success stories such as Zoopla, Citymapper, Beautystack and WeFarm along the way. For them, basing their operations here, and bringing founders and investors in too, was absolutely key to what they wish to achieve next.
I visit the hub on a hot and rainy summer’s day to hear Saul speak at a packed community event, that poses a provocative question: Could Somers Town be the new Palo Alto within the next 20 years?
Working in tech, LocalGlobe have close ties with that corner of California that has become known as the heart of Silicon Valley, witnessing trillions of dollars pour in since the 1970s, largely due to its proximity to Stanford University and the startups of the San Francisco metropolis. Yet poverty, homelessness and an acute housing crisis loom large in the area’s modern fortunes too.
While I can spot some Somers Town residents eyes roll skyward at the very proposition, Saul presents a truly striking case. Did you realise, for instance, that as soon as next year this area will surpass London’s fabled Square Mile in its economic value to the UK?
That’s before the arrival of Google’s vast new HQ building, and the expansion of Facebook’s current Euston offices to King’s Cross, to come hot on the heels of global powerhouses Nike and Universal Music relocating here too.
“For the first time in 2000 years, the economic capital of London is going to change,” says Saul. He demonstrates our proximity to yet more world-leading firms like AI trailblazers DeepMind, fashion tech leaders ASOS and the mind-boggling number of biomedical science, educational and creative institutions dotted all around these streets.
“Palo Alto is like a 20th Century Florence or the Vatican for the tech world,” Saul continues. “Yet this area of London is self-evidently becoming the Silicon Valley of the rest of the world. It is significantly ahead of cities across the rest of the US, China, Europe and Israel, and it’s environment is set to compound this ecosystem in the next five years.”
Despite the ongoing Brexit rollercoaster, this specific part of the UK capital remains increasingly tempting for businesses old, new and yet to come. Those Victorian railways stations provide brilliant national and international travel links, numerous venerable old universities and research institutes are a short walk away, and unlike a place such as Palo Alto, we’re also at the seat of government.
LocalGlobe feel there’s a chance to learn from the tech goldrush mistakes in California, and finally see Euston’s much-overlooked community benefit from what is emerging all around them.
Some will doubtless argue they’ve heard it all before, but the numbers are staggering, and old approaches really are changing as technology shakes every industry to its core. Meanwhile Phoenix Court is already revealing its intention by regularly inviting the community inside as equals to sit at the same table as the startups, including pupils from Edith Neville Primary School and Regent High School plus hosting Camden STEAM events and working closely on other local environmental and social projects.
You sense this investment with the community is intrinsic to a wider big idea about the future, and is actually vital in ensuring these venture capitalists continue to invest wisely in the next global tech giants, perhaps soon to be born and bred right here.
I don’t think this signals the coming of a new Palo Alto, but it’s certainly sowing the seeds for a very new Somers Town.