London's 'billionaire's avenue' defies economic gravity

( AFP ) - Even as Britain's property market shows signs of struggling, one north London street is defying the gloom-mongers: houses on "billionaire's avenue" are still selling for record prices.

Like an oasis of wealth in an increasingly parched real estate desert, The Bishops Avenue in Hampstead remains a booming property hotspot -- despite, for some, little in the way of elegance or discretion.

"Among the wealthiest in the world, The Bishops Avenue is better known than Buckingham Palace," Trevor Abrahamson of estate agents Glentree International told AFP with a hint of pride, having sold most of the 66 houses in the street.

After a period of uncertainty when the Dotcom bubble burst around 2000 -- empty properties were occupied by squatters, and there were serious questions over the area's future -- the Avenue has recently regained its lustre.

In early January billionaire Russian-Israeli Lev Leviev bought a villa on The Bishops Avenue -- the definite article underlines its exclusiveness -- for a record-setting 35 million pounds (47 million euros, 68 million dollars).

Only a few weeks later, that record was shattered by a billionaire from Kazakhstan, Horelma Perama, who put up no less than 50 million pounds to buy the " Toprak Mansion".

With its pillared facade, the huge building sets a new standard of excess on the already gaudy street. The mansion includes 2,600 square metres (28,000 square feet) of living space, a 25-metre (80-foot) dining room, and a garage for 28 cars.

It is generally felt that discretion and understatement did not feature high on the list of demands made by the previous owner, Turkish businessman Halis Toprak.

No matter: "It's a statement of wealth," Abrahamson explains.

Foreigners with deep pockets -- notably from the ex-Soviet bloc -- who constitute the majority of the buyers find the street especially attractive because of the advantages it offers.

It is surrounded by two golf courses and 1,000 acres (four million square metres) of parkland, and is close to the centre of the capital.

In short, the area combines vast tracts of land with planning policies weak enough to allow for unbridled extravagance.

That makes it perfect for "a person who wants to combine the townhouse and the country house," Abrahamson says.

As a result, London's financial and business elite as well as royals from countries awash with money from record oil prices target homes on the Avenue, even though many of them spend barely a few days a year in Britain.

Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who already owns an enormous house on "billionaire's row" at Kensington Palace Gardens in central London, keeps a pied-a-terre there.

The same goes for British press baron Richard Desmond and the Saudi royal family, who bought around 10 properties during the first Gulf War.

But the one cloud is looming over this real estate haven, where indoor swimming pools and air conditioning are thought of as bare essentials, and where the cheapest apartment costs two million pounds.

Avenue residents are watching closely to see what becomes of a controversial new proposal to revise the advantageous tax status of non-domiciled residents, or "non-doms".

London, known as one of the world's financial hubs, is also a "tax haven" which attracts foreigners with fortunes made abroad, Abrahamson says.

"If the government tries to tinker with the domicility rules, they could find the door flung very firmly in their face, because Geneva, Frankfurt, Dubai desperately want these people, big players with big bucks," he notes.

And The Bishops Avenue, like the rest of the British capital, could in one fell swoop lose a chunk of its appeal overseas.

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