The voice on the other end of the phone needs convincing. Amir Zarbafi has spoken to the Mercury three times already – why, he says, do you need another interview?
It’s the advert in Saturday’s property guide, he’s told, a full-page invitation to “meet the most controversial developer to hit Leicester”. The accompanying photo shows an outstretched hand descending from an almost Godly angle.
“You’ve got 30 minutes, maybe 45 if you’re lucky,” chuckles the 44-year-old Iranian. “See you on Thursday.”
If Amir’s name is not immediately familiar, his landmark will be. St George’s Tower – dubbed The Awful Tower – is 20 storeys of rippling canary blue concrete in the centre of the city.
Whether you love it or loathe it is not important, says Amir.
“People,” he smiles, “are entitled to their own opinion.
“There are other names, which are complimentary. They call it the Blue Tower, the Iconic Tower.
“I’ve had friends who have seen it from the M1, coming down from Sheffield. They’ve seen it sticking out and called it The Blue Rocket.”
So you’d be happy if your neighbours painted their house blue?
“I couldn’t care less what people colour their buildings,” he responds, flatly.
The outcry at the colour, added in April 2007 in homage to his home club – Chelsea – has been but a miniscule blip on the developer’s radar since he bought the site in 1996.
Back then, it was home to BT and the Post Office. The original idea was to bulldoze the buildings and erect a cinema – but that was kiboshed when the new Highcross development, with its cinema, was approved.
Problems arose because the building lies at the heart of the area identified by Leicester Regeneration Company’s (LRC) masterplan for the business quarter.
In the past, it has threatened to compulsorily purchase the site.
In December, 2005, Amir’s patience with the regeneration people went pop. Two giant banners reading “Magnet Property Investments Ltd, 400,000sq ft of regeneration for Leicester. No thanks to Leicester Regeneration Ltd (sic),” were erected at St George’s Heights.
“I regret nothing, it was correct at that time – and it was correct when it got taken off,” he sayIn Property Week, in 2006, he likened LRC’s threat to get a compulsory purchase order (CPO) for the building to the activities of the Zimbabwean government.
“That wasn’t actually a statement towards Leicester Regeneration Company. I was,” he pauses, looking to the ceiling, “quoting the systematic CPO powers which were being used by various governments, such as the Zimbabwe government.”
Today, Amir is conducting personalised tours of the 24 apartments for sale in St George’s Heights, the tower’s baby brother.
The ad in the Mercury and the one-on-one tours are part of the flats’ marketing, which has just started, he explains.
Was it his decision to go with “meet Leicester’s most controversial developer” for the advertising?
“Was it? Erm, probably, I dunno. I can’t remember if it was my idea or the advertising people, but,” he reasons, “it’s probably true. It’s a fact. I live with facts.”
How many apartments have you sold so far? “We haven’t sold any,” he says.
“There are more viewings this afternoon. We’ve got to the stage now where they’re coming for their second, third visit. They’re proving popular with the over-55s.”
It’s a busy day for the developer. The father-of-four started the morning by dropping his children off at school in London.
There are four viewings today and a meeting with the architect. His last job is in the capital at 7pm.
After a quick tour through a few of the flats – surprisingly plush, incredible views – the interview begins in earnest.
The current relationship with the city fathers is a much smoother one, says Amir.
“I’m in touch regularly now. One has to live with facts. The facts were Leicester Regeneration was not pro this development happening at this particular juncture.
“In the past 12 months, it has been extremely supportive.”
Each week, Amir walks around the city centre so he can see what’s happening with the regeneration.
“I go, at least, all the way up to High Street, up to the Shires and back. I walk down that nice lane with all the trees.”
New Walk? “You better not put that,” he smiles, “or I’ll have to walk around there with a mask.”
You’ve been coming here weekly for 12 years. What do you know about Leicester?
“The universities, the streets. I had a report done in 1996 that gives various information – average age, the education system, things like that. It’s more about data.”
Do you know anything about the city’s history? “No,” he splutters, his voice full of amusement.
“I will be reading up on it,” he says, emanating a boyish laugh. I want to ask him what’s so funny, but I don’t need to.
“Leicester, it’s the lost city of Britain in many ways,” he shrugs. “The 80s, 90s, 00s boom has missed it – it’s been in a timewarp since the ’70s.
“From the bottom parts of Watford, the boom got to Northampton, missed Leicester, and it went up to Newcastle. It’s not a north/south divide.
“The infrastructure is great. There’s an execution problem with the city. I can only speak about my own experience.
“It’s not easy to find parcels of property that are large anywhere.
“To find a piece of land which you can put a large building on, you’ve got to find the investors who share your dream, then you’ve got to sell the dream to a place like Leicester – where no-one has successfully executed that for 25 years.
“Then you’ve got to persuade the bankers.”
“I’ve persuaded a lot of people to put £33 million into this and there are people going around saying ‘no, thank-you’ – the Government, the public sector – there’s an execution problem.”
The project is nearing completion. The architect says there are two weeks left.
Earlier this month, Premier Inn was revealed as the hotel chain wanting to set up in the tower.
These are uncertain times in the economy, though. It’s hardly the best climate to be putting the finishing touches to a multi-million pound development.
“The credit crunch is affecting everyone in some shape or form. We’re not immune. The banking system is the engine of capitalism,” says Amir.
Having said that, he reveals his firm has just let a hotel in Hull and a Mercedes Benz garage in the south.
“If property developing was easy, everybody would be doing it,” he says. “Time will prove whether these buildings are successful or not.
“Canary Wharf went bust, but now it’s probably the most successful development in Europe.
“We’ll try to not go bust and be one of the more successful developments in Leicester.”
This feature was first published in the Leicester Mercury in 2008 and the pics are also courtesy of the Leicester Mercury.
Post script news article December 2009……………….
One of Leicester’s best-known buildings has been taken over by a bank after the multi-million pound scheme to turn it into offices and shops hit financial trouble.
St George’s Central, in St George’s Way – widely known as the Blue Tower – has been repossessed by the Anglo Irish Bank because of difficulties finding tenants.
Regeneration bosses said they had no plans to forcibly buy the £33m scheme, which is three-quarters empty, as part of the redevelopment area.
It comes after the man appointed by the bank to run the property says he was confident of filling the development.
The former British Telecom and Royal Mail office complex has been owned by Magnet Property Investments, of London, for the past decade.
Kevin Mersh, a director at NB Real Estate in London, has been appointed by Anglo Irish – Magnet’s biggest creditor – to find tenants for the site.
He said the property was in an attractive location, but it was “not without its challenges”. He said he would look at ways of wooing potential occupiers.
“We will give incentives to attract tenants,” said Mr Mersh. “We would offer rent-free periods.”
The site has planning consent for 140,000 sq ft of offices over four storeys and 58,000 sq ft of shops and leisure outlets on the ground floor.
It includes a 135-room Premier Inn hotel in the bottom half of the tower and 24 occupied flats at the top of the base unit. The site has consent for another 51 flats at the top of the tower.
Mr Mersh did not rule out re-painting the 269ft blue tower, a colour choice which has prompted criticism. He said he had also taken charge of 11 other Magnet Property Investments on behalf of the Anglo Irish Bank. He said Magnet had not gone into administration.
Amir Zarbafi, who has fronted the St George’s development for the past seven years, said he was no longer connected with the building after Magnet ended a consultancy contract with his company, Standford Properties
“I was never a shareholder or a director of Magnet,” he said. “Standford Properties were contracted to fight the compulsory purchase order.”
Magnet also caused controversy, in 2005, when it erected a giant sign at the side of the building criticising the people in charge of the city’s regeneration plans.
David Hughes, chief executive of Prospect Leicestershire, the agency charged with redeveloping the city, said it had no plans to look at a compulsory purchase order.
He said he was keen to incorporate the building into the multi-million pound office quarter planned for the area around the railway station.
Anglo Irish Bank declined to comment. No-one from Magnet Property Investments could be reached for comment.
As of October 2015.
Leicester’s iconic Blue Tower is now fully let thanks to a major deal with insurance company Hastings Direct.
A number of tenants have been attracted to St George’s Central, near Leicester Railway Station, following its acquisition by Infrastructure Investments.
The 60,000 sq ft letting to the insurance giant – currently based in temporary offices in the city – could eventually create up to 700 new jobs.
Hastings has taken the first and second floors of the building on a 10-year lease and the company is set to move in early next year following an extensive fit-out that includes removing an existing mezzanine to create 21ft high glazing around the new office space.
The 21-storey building is already home to a Premier Inn hotel over 10 floors as well as apartments on the top two floors.
Deals have now been completed for an additional two floors of apartments, 160 student study rooms and one of the largest Pure Gyms in the country.
Jane Taylor, director of office agency at property consultancy Lambert Smith Hampton’s Leicester office – who are joint agents on the scheme with Innes England – said: “St George’s is one of Leicester’s most recognisable buildings and its size and central location meant it always had huge potential and that has now been realized thanks to the creative ownership of Infrastructure Investments.
“Building strong partnerships has been a key to the success of the building and gaining the support of mayor Peter Soulsby and his officers has been critical in helping make this such a successful project.
“Hastings were looking at a range of cities but the offer of the fantastic space, the new gym and hotel as well as its location next to the city’s train station combined with the backing of the local authority who are transforming the infrastructure around the scheme clinched the deal for Leicester.”