It was going to be one of the biggest urban regeneration schemes that Lisbon had ever seen. More than 23,000 sq m of warehouse space in the heart of the city that, 11 years ago, were set to be transformed into a vast, sprawling mixed-use development. It was going to be legendary.
Now, after over a decade of stalling, planning issues and delays, only a fraction of the allocated space – just 4,000 sq m – will be used for the development. And it is the best news the city could ever have hoped for.
Because what is there instead, partially by accident, is legendary in its own right. This is the topsy-turvy story of the bureaucratic nightmare that turned into a fairy tale for the tech era. A rags-to-rags saga that was initially considered a temporary solution to a financial problem has become a long-term jewel in Lisbon’s crown. Welcome to the LX Factory.
“We are 100% occupied,” says Filipa Baptista of Mainside Investments, the funding vehicle behind the scheme as she strolls through an independent coffee shop/pancake house/gallery/vegan shoe factory – one of the many that line the cobbled streets weaving through the warehouse spaces. “It’s around €11 [£9.24] a sq m per month here and we started to rent out the space on temporary leases to act as a stopgap while the urban regeneration scheme was delayed. It was never meant to be a permanent measure. Now, though? It will stay. And we have shrunk the scheme instead.”
And stay it should. A quiet influx of start ups, tech companies, independent food stores, galleries, coffee shops, furniture stores, co-working spaces and artists over the years has resulted in the creation one of the globe’s most organically grown, innovative start-up hubs. This is not something that has emerged over the past two years. This has been slowly building for nearly 11 years.
And it shows. The hub feels like a district in its own right. It has its own roads, its own vine-covered al fresco bars, its own tumble-down cantinas. It’s real, it’s buzzing and the rest of the world is starting to notice.
From Kontor in London, through to start-ups from America, Australia, Brazil, China and the rest of Europe, all are eyeing this former printing factory with interest. “Ten years ago, almost everyone here was Portuguese,” says Fernando Mendes, founder of Co-work Lisboa, which operates on the top floor of one of the LX Factory warehouses. “Now 30% of my clients are international. From all over the world.”
What is so interesting about the story of the LX Factory is that it encapsulates a period of time that has seen fast-changing real estate demand. As TMT occupiers outpace other sectors in terms of uptake in major cities around the world, this hub is proof that shiny new mixed-use developments may no longer attract the best occupiers, the best investment and recognition on a global scale.
But a coffee shop/pancake house/gallery/vegan shoe factory? Well, that might just be what clinches it…