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Urban Creation's Jonathan Brecknell on the ups and downs of life as a Bristol property developer

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Written by: Bristol Post | Posted 08 November 2016 15:38

Urban Creation's Jonathan Brecknell on the ups and downs of life as a Bristol property developer

David Clensy talks to Jonathan Brecknell, founder off Urban Creation, about his path to success on Bristol’s property market

For any property developer who lived through and survived the crash of 2008, the period will be looked back upon with a sense of sheer relief that those dark days are now past – but none more so than Jonathan Brecknell.

As the co-founder of Urban Creation, Jonathan has overseen the creation of more than 1,100 apartments in Bristol and the surrounding area – but it was the crash of 2008 and the doomed (for Jonathan at least) project to convert Clifton’s  Pro-Cathedral into apartments, that will live long in his memory.

Indeed, he’s the first to point out that it was the trials and tribulations of this period, and successfully working a way out of a “big financial hole” that he found himself in at the time, that has shaped him into a more resilient and risk-courageous businessman that he is today.

After that lowest ebb he has gone on to enjoy great success on development projects across the city – finding a specialist niche in converting interesting old buildings for the student accommodation.

“We’d just bought the Pro Cathedral when the crash happened in 2008. We initially had consent for 50 apartments, and had taken it back to planners with a great new plan that would allow us to develop 80 apartments on the site,” Jonathan recalls.

“You tend to borrow against site value, but then sales values plummeted across the country, and we couldn’t get anyone to raise the finance to allow us to build out the project.”

For Jonathan’s business partner Darren Sheward, with whom Jonathan had formed Urban Creation in 2004, the financial pressures of the moment were too great and he pulled out of the business. But Jonathan, despite staring bankruptcy in the face, was keen to find a solution.

“Urban Creation was a transactional business, and we had no transactions, so I had to shrink the team right back from half a dozen to just one employee, and I knuckled down to work out what I was going to do.

“In the end I worked out that we could get out of the fix by taking a student accommodation scheme to planners for the Upper School Building next to the Pro Cathedral, that got us going again, and then we were able to sell the Pro Cathedral project on to Student Castle, who went on to deliver it out.

“It felt like getting rid of a massive millstone from around my neck, but we had pulled it off.”

Jonathan admits the experience gave him a greater appetite for risk.

“That period was just about managing yourself and keeping the wolf from the door, but selling the Pro Cathedral in 2011 gave us a bit of equity to work with, we took on a couple of new schemes through 2012 and 2013, and gradually prices started lifting again.”

The success of the Upper School Building project demonstrated to Jonathan that the student accommodation sector delivered good cash flow.

“It was an asset class that a lot of people didn’t fully understand back in 2011,” he says, “in terms of what you need to deliver for students, but also in terms of what the value of the assets were really worth then. Of course now everyone gets it, but we were able to take advantage of the understanding we had of the sector for the next few years.”

The trick of the successful property developer was for many years about buying a site, converting it swiftly and selling the apartments on quickly at a handsome profit. But in recent years Jonathan admits he has become aware that the kinds of projects he has specialised in – breathing new life into historic properties – brings with it the inherent implication that there is ultimately a finite number of such opportunities in the city.

But Jonathan, who first fell in love with Bristol when he came here as a student, has now put down roots and relishes bringing up his own family in the city – so he’s increasingly keeping hold of the properties he converts, building up a growing portfolio of student and residential schemes across the city, with his team doing their own in-house property management.

He is certainly hoping to keep hold of the three projects that Urban Creation are currently on site with in the city.

“We’re on site at the Manor House in St Michael’s Hill,” he says. “That’s an incredible project – converting a seventeenth century, grade-II listed property, which had suffered a big fire back in 1979, which took out a lot of the historic fabric.

“We’re converting it into 18 student flats, and it’s going to be a fantastic site. That will be finished in April 2017.

“We’re also currently on site at Alison Court, which is a 1970s apartment block on Apsley Road, which we’re converting into 15 really beautiful student apartments.

“The other scheme we are currently on site with is Beech House, on St Paul’s Road, in Clifton, which is a grand old Victorian villa, which we’re sympathetically converting into apartments with a couple of lovely mews properties to the rear.”

Jonathan’s greatest talent has always been the ability to look at an old building and work out the most efficient and effective contemporary use of the space.

“It’s important to me to make the best use of the space, especially when you’re dealing with student accommodation – a typical student studio apartment might be 20 square metres, so you have to make sure every bit of the space works well. 

“We like to deliver clever spaces. We interrogate all our buildings to make sure we’re getting the maximum out of a site, but also to make sure it is a good liveable space for the people who will eventually live there.”

 

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