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Boomtown and Gown: A Cambridge Commercial Agent’s View

May 2, 2017

When it comes to the business of commercial property to let in Cambridge, the boundaries between town and gown have never been more blurred, explains Ben Green who heads Barker Storey Matthews' commercial agency operation in the historic University City.

Boomtown and Gown: A Cambridge Commercial Agentâs View

At the foot of the road, Pound Hill, in which the Cambridge office of Barker Storey Matthews is located is a public house called The Punter. When I first came to Cambridge, it was called The Town and Gown. In a way, this pub's name change echoes the transformation of the city in my time here. While the University of Cambridge will always dominate, the shape of the city has been changed by big business and the international financial markets taking a punt on the city and working alongside the Colleges - especially when it comes to land and property development.

Any long term investment portfolio will - almost always - contain elements of land and property holdings with a view to them holding an enduring value and giving a solid return.

The portfolios of the University of Cambridge and its individual colleges are no exception. Not only are these institutions active and influential landlords of commercial premises in and across the city but the development of their land holdings has shaped the face of Cambridge in representing the city to international business investors during the past five decades.

The modern commercial property story of the city, unquestionably, begins with the UK's first purpose-built science park.  In 1970 Cambridge Science Park took shape on land, to the north of the city, owned - and still retained - by Trinity College.  The Science Park is now in Phase 6 of its development and there is substantial redevelopment within its original footprint and earliest phases.

Where the names of some business, technology and science parks in the city might not always reflect the current ownership, they do, however, reflect which institution instigated the push for development on the land in which they are sited.  For example, St John's Innovation Park became a fully-fledged ‘Park' when development expanded from its original core of the St John's Innovation Centre; Peterhouse Technology Park is where the global business behemoth that is ARM began and now, only through expansive development behind the original park's land boundaries, can ARM be provided with the space it needs to retain Cambridge as its headquarters.

Peterhouse Technology Park is a joint venture between the College and an international real estate investment company and is an example of the interest in Cambridge development and property by global investors and blue chip companies.

International private equity investor, Henderson owns Capital Park in Fulbourn where the Cambridge office of IBM is located. On the city's southern outskirts, Granta Park is being further developed by Biomed Reality - a US property investment firm which retains a portfolio specialising in pharma and medical related property interests around the world. 

The ownership of the Wellcome Genome Campus in Hinxton is more obvious, home as it is to the high profile Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Vision Park, just north of the Cambridge Science Park, in the village of Histon, is owned by a group of investors which includes JP Morgan and Columbia Threadneedle Investments.

The list is by no means exhaustive. The point is that, in modern, business boomtown Cambridge, the traditional institutions of the University of Cambridge and its Colleges - not to mention The Crown Estate which owns the 450,000 sq ft Cambridge Business Park - on the opposite side of the road to the Science Park - sit, comfortably, side by side with international investment funds.  Serious investment funds talk - no matter in which country their provenance - when it comes to ownership, management and the development potential of Cambridge's business, technology and scientific research parks.

However, financial markets dislike uncertainty and in the context of the current geopolitical uncertainty and Europe's own ‘local difficulties,' there is concern among property professionals in the city. 

While the local commercial property market in Cambridge remains fairly resilient at present, there is less of a ‘gung-ho' appetite for further speculative building than is committed to already - apart from in some ‘hot spots' such as CB1.

Back to The Punter pub in appreciating the ambiguity its name affords when it comes to consideration of commercial property in Cambridge. While taking a punt on Cambridge is something very different from taking a punt in Cambridge, both actions are inextricably linked with University and its Colleges.

For more information about Barker Storey Matthews in Cambridge, see the website.


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