By Scott Wright

IN a city where the impact of coronavirus is all too easy to see, it is encouraging to detect signs of renewal.

While the streets were deserted during periods of lockdown, Chris Stewart Group made good progress on Love Loan, a £100 million property development a short walk from George Square in Glasgow city centre.

The ambitious project, which unites an area enclosed by George Street, John Street, Martha Street and North Frederick Street, brings together the old and the new.

On the new side, topping out was recently achieved on a 240-bedroom hotel, which will trade under the AC by Marriott brand, while preparations will soon begin for the construction of a 20-storey residential accommodation block, hosting 160 apartments.

The apartments, which will ultimately be available to rent, are being built on a site that used to be home to the city’s registry office on Martha Street.

And sticking with the old, Chris Stewart’s vision for Love Loan includes the revitalisation of two listed buildings, formerly home to the Inland Revenue and the Parish Halls.

There will be combination of bars, restaurants and gallery and studio spaces throughout the complex, some fronting a lane connecting John Street and North Frederick Street.

Entrepreneur Chris Stewart, a self-made property developer, is no stranger to big developments. In the last 20 years, his company has tastefully rejuvenated a raft of prestigious buildings, including the former Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters on St Andrew Square in Edinburgh. Now known as The Registers, the neoclassical building comprises 50 luxury flats, and sits alongside 65,000 square feet of office space occupied by Baillie Gifford, also developed by Chris Stewart. But Love Loan is his biggest project in Glasgow to date.

“It’s cracking on apace,” Mr Stewart told The Herald. “We have topped out our hotel building, which is looking fantastic. It has reached its maximum height, the structure is fully up, and the facades are starting to go on. It’s looking great. It’s the key first phase of the project, alongside the two listed buildings.”

He added: “Everything we have planned for has come into play, so we are feeling pretty positive about the outcome for it.”

Mr Stewarts anticipates that the first phases of the development will start to open up next year, with the remaining aspects following a year later.

Looking in from the outside, it seems like a complex project, marrying new structures with listed buildings while uniting them under a common purpose and connecting them together.

But Mr Stewart said it is “bread and butter” for the developer. “We are very used to dealing with a hotch-potch of different buildings and different issues,” he said. “They all come with their challenges.

“What really attracted us to the site was that nice balance and combination between being able to do a new-build element, really transformative pieces within the site, and also the reimagination of the two buildings that were on site.

“The gap site at George Street and John Street had sat there vacant for over 80 years, which is quite remarkable. Central to that was this ability to stitch the two pieces of the site together with a central lane, to create this great amenity and activity on the lane, so the site fundamentally operates on many different levels.

“It is not just about the George Street frontage, it is about what happens on the lane behind, what happens on Martha Street and how it addresses the university (Strathclyde). It is a real opportunity to pull together quite a jigsaw puzzle of different buildings and then be able to give them their own identities. We are pretty advanced in being able to deliver the occupiers for those listed buildings.”

Mr Stewart said his confidence in attracting local businesses as tenants stems from the company’s record on similar regeneration projects in Edinburgh. “We are hoping that when we are done it will be a real exemplar project for the city,” he said.

“The quality, for sure, is going to stand out, because we have spent a huge amount of time and money on getting that right.”

He added: “We’ve been spending a lot of time looking for the right project [in Glasgow]. This really fitted our skills. But it’s a long project. It’s almost like half a dozen projects in one. By the time we are through it, we will have been in it for the best part of seven or eight years.”

The developer invests its own capital in its projects and retains the properties as income-producing assets on its balance sheet. It has not been immune from the pandemic. Mr Stewart noted the fall-out has been particularly acute for its hospitality properties, which include The Edinburgh Grand and its first AC by Marriott (a concept created by a collaboration between Spanish hotelier Antonio Catalan and the hotel group) next to the Playhouse Theatre in the Scottish capital.

“We own hotels and that has been incredibly hard hit, but we have been incredibly resilient,” he explained. “Our buildings have traded very much above average and have out-performed the market, which is good, but at the same time [there is] no doubt it has been tough.”

Overall, though, he is gratified that the group’s properties have maintained their values “petty remarkably” throughout the pandemic, and sees no shortage of capital ready to invest.

Back at Love Loan, he is generous in his praise for Glasgow City Council for the support it has shown in getting the project off the ground. “They couldn’t do more for us,” he said, noting that the development involves assets formerly owned by the city.

However, he feels the Scottish Government needs to demonstrate a clear vision for how it intends to revive the economy from the devastation that the pandemic has brought in its wake.

“I think it is on record that they have apologised for not communicating with businesses,” Mr Stewart said.

“I don’t think businesses have felt as if they were really in the thoughts of government during this time.

“The important thing for us is to see a clear strategy, a clear plan for economic recovery that the Scottish Government have, what it looks like and how businesses will be supported through this next phase.

“Because we are certainly not out of the woods for sure, and there is a long way to go still before we are back to business as usual. That economic leadership is critical.”

Six Questions

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure? 
I visited Japan once and standing in the middle of Tokyo is a truly memorable experience.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
I always liked buildings so it was always going to be property for me.

What was your biggest break in business?
I had two angel investors who showed tremendous faith in me when I was just 20. That was the turning point.

What was your worst moment in business?
I’ve grown to be resilient to all knocks.

Who do you most admire and why?
Those who stick to their principles

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
I’ve not discovered a way to read a book while in the gym, so Above and Beyond provides my soundtrack.