Tuesday, February 19, 2019

London Living

It was brief. It was exciting. But we knew it wasn’t real. Living in London for almost two weeks was a wonderful treat for our entire family last summer. We were ensconced in a nice but plain four story townhouse in Paddington not very far from the tube. Hopefully it will be the first of many such ventures abroad.

Surrounding us were row houses, public housing, apartment buildings and the English version of condo complexes. The atmosphere was all very urban, urbane and ripe for big city living. If you’re going to pretend big city living, one can’t do much better than London.

I gleaned some interesting market stats from the Super-Prime Residential Report from Knight Frank Real Estate. Super-prime is defined as the higher end properties in London; starting at two plus million pounds. Anything less than 1.5 million pounds and most of those properties are listed as ‘flats.’ Honestly, it’s a different real estate world over there.

Although London had been seeing some tough times recently with its housing market, it continues to be a safe haven for long term investments with increasing focus on income generation and longer-term returns. Prime Central London (PCL) has not experienced a double-digit price movement up or down for more than five years. By standards of the last four decades, pricing movements have become less extreme.

The London super-prime buyer base is extremely diverse with British, European, Middle Eastern, North American and more recently Chinese buyers seeking property as both homes and investments. Moreover, there has been a shift in the source of wealth away from the financial sector and towards more tech and entrepreneurial sources.

Two units down from our townhome, a similar unit had sold for over four million dollars (translated from pounds by my smart kids) four years earlier. Our unit was purchased for over two million pounds just a couple of years before. Now it had been transformed into a very busy VBRO in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in London.

Based on accents heard on the street, the Russians have found a haven for their money too. I was told that London never lost its reputation as a target market for Russian buyers, but economic conditions in Russia over the last three to four years have reduced demand to some extent.

Now I could understand the appeal of an area like Paddington. The Knight Frank Report went on to say: “It is a cliché but education and culture still play a massively important role for super prime buyers in London. With everything else going on, it’s easy to forget that people still want to study here, go to Wimbledon and Ascot and love the social scene. There is also a strong creative aspect to living in London, demonstrated by some of the deals by tech companies.”

This trip to London was vastly different from my first visit back in 1967.

Back then, I was just another lost soul wandering the cobblestone streets of Dicken’s city looking for folk clubs. I accidentally stumbled across the headquarters of the Beatles Corporation, got lost a couple of times in Hyde Park, and fantasized about shipping out on a freighter.

Back in the 90s, we took our kids to London during Christmas break along with a group of friends. Then repeated that excursion some four years later. Back then, the kids were in high school and old enough to appreciate the excitement of traveling in a foreign country.

This time around, so much had changed. The adults were in charge now. Sharon and I gladly followed them; grandchildren in tow. There were coffee houses near the tube station for morning briefings, gallery tours at the National gallery, the British Museum and The Tate. We soared high in the London Eye, discovered Harry Potter hideaways, strolled along the Thames, took in a show in the Theater District, and wandered the lush green parks.

The kids had their phone apps which told us when the next tube car would arrive, the closest restaurants, shops and entertainment. If we got tired of waiting, we can just dial up an Uber or Lyft. For daily use of the tube, we had our Oster Pass, which got us on all buses and the tube throughout the city.

 For a couple of grandparents it was a delightful way to rediscover one of our favorite cities with the entire family along. Who would have known that I’d be back after that first timid venture in ’67 with my best friend and most prized possessions right beside me?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Flying on the Coaster

There was an interesting article in the New York Times back on January 1st that spoke directly to me. It was entitled: “Why the West Coast is suddenly beating the East Coast on Trans-portation” by Ms. Camille Fink.

“It is an incredibly exciting time to be in urban transportation,” the New York transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, told a breakfast gathering of powerful New Yorkers, pointing to California’s progress.*

The Los Angeles area, the ultimate car-centric region with its sprawling freeways, approved a sweeping $120 billion plan to build new train routes and upgrade its buses. Seattle has won accolades for its transit system, where 93 percent of riders report being happy with service – a feat that seems unimaginable in New York, where subway riders regularly simmer with rage on stalled trains.

“It’s a tale of two systems,” said Robert Puentes, the president of the Eno Center for Trans-portation, a nonpartisan research center in Washington. “These new ones are growing and haven’t started to experience the pains of rehabilitation.”*

While I’m hardly an urban kind of guy and big cities are more my nemesis than a friend, I did find the article scored a direct bullseye on my interest level in transportation. It’s not just my love of the bicycles or walkabouts that garnered that attention. Rail travel has always been on my short list of imaginative ways to get about.

Sharon and I have done the Amtrak commuter run from D.C. to New York several times. We’ve ridden the rails from San Diego to Santa Barbara and hopped the Coaster for a day trip to San Diego. The San Diego Coaster is part of a much larger Amtrak network of rails that weave their way up and down the West Coast.

The Coaster’s normal run goes from Oceanside, just south of Camp Pendleton, down to San Diego. The ride from Oceanside to San Diego costs a little over six dollars round trip and takes about an hour. One glance at traffic on highway 5 morning or evening and its benefits can’t be denied.

The D.C. (actually we boarded in Annapolis) to Manhattan commuter run is a fascinating reveal on the east coast and its inhabitants.

The run up the coast from San Diego to Santa Barbara does the same reveal on the opposite side of the country. The Coaster is an amalgamation of the two; commuters, long distance rail riders, suburban Moms on a quick jaunt into town and a wide assortment of humanity in-between. I was just there to look, listen and sneak a picture or two.

Scenes from the Pacific Coast Highway

Los Angeles plans to build 100 new miles of rail – essentially doubling the Metro system, whose first rail line opened in 1990. There are now six lines and 93 stations. “I made sure we included funding for long-term maintenance,” said Dow Constantine, the executive of King County, which is home to Seattle, “so you don’t get the situation we’re seeing in New York and Washington where the systems have been neglected and it’s expensive and inconvenient to rebuild.”*

There’s even talk of a rail line extending from downtown Los Angeles to the Coachella Valley. Having spent some time on highway 10 going into L.A., I can only hope it will come sooner rather than later.

*Excerpts taken from the New York Times article “Why the West Coast is suddenly beating the East Coast on Transportation” by Ms. Camille Fink, January lst, 2019.