Bloomberg Businessweek

The Fog Lifts

The bull case for London, a year after Brexit

Thirty years ago, London’s Isle of Dogs was a barren expanse of abandoned wharves and crumbling warehouses, never recovered from the wartime attentions of the Luftwaffe. Even the names of nearby boat basins were reminders of Britain’s lost empire and postwar decline: the West and East India docks.

George Iacobescu arrived in 1988, sent to oversee what at the time seemed like a bold, verging-on-insane idea: the creation of a financial district that would supplant the winding lanes and low-slung stone of the City, London’s traditional banking hub. Maintaining the City’s historical character and its views of St. Paul’s Cathedral made building skyscrapers there all but impossible then. Canary Wharf, as the development would be called, would offer bright, modern office towers and cutting-edge telecommunications, allowing London to compete with New York as a center of global finance.

For the first few years, Canary Wharf looked like a colossal failure. Then, in the late 1990s, it began taking off, slowly at first and soon with dizzying speed—transformed, like London as a whole, by the power of international finance.

On the 30th floor of its tallest skyscraper, Romanian-born Iacobescu, now the chief executive officer of Canary Wharf Group Plc, beams with pride as he surveys his domain, where 100,000 workers arrive every weekday at Chevron, HSBC, Intel, and JPMorgan Chase, among others. In an adjacent room, a forest of architectural models the size of small children shows its 16 million square feet of towers, malls, and underground rail links. Iacobescu gravitates to one in particular, illustrating the plans for a new district under construction east of the original site. Canary Wharf has changed so much that now people want to live there, and its tallest building will be residential.

“The Chinese look at Canary Wharf and they say, ‘This is how cities should work,’” Iacobescu boasts. “The world wants to come here.”

Perhaps, though, not as much as it did a little more than a year ago. The city that breathed life into Canary Wharf faces a fight for its future. Last June pollsters and investors confidently ruled out the possibility that British voters would decide to leave the European Union. The morning after 52 percent of them rebuked everything Canary Wharf stands for by voting to leave, the pound plunged to its lowest level

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