What went wrong at Britain’s poshest retirement village

The site of the former Heythrop College in Kensington Square, London: its future development remains uncertainin
The site of the former Heythrop College in Kensington Square, London: its future development remains uncertain - Betty Laura Zapata/Bloomberg

It was supposed to be a luxury “later life facility”, where residents could take afternoon tea on a landscaped deck and play croquet on a manicured lawn. Housed in a Grade II-listed former Jesuit seminary in Kensington, Heythrop College was rumoured to feature a yoga studio, a cinema, a hair and beauty salon, a dog grooming room, a spa with hydro pools, a swimming pool, a restaurant and a library. It was one of the UK’s “caviar care homes”, with apartments expected to sell for more than £3 million each.

Now the lavish plans for Heythrop College hang in the balance, as it was revealed that the South African developer Zenprop has sold the site to hotel operator, Arora, at a discount of £30 million, one of London’s biggest losses in 2023.

The scheme, a few minutes’ walk from Kensington Palace, was aimed at wealthy over-65s. designed by US architecture practice KPF (also behind the Scalpel skyscraper at London’s 52 Lime Street) and masterminded by specialist later-life developer Auriens. A similar Auriens property on Dovehouse Street in nearby Chelsea includes 56 apartments, a swimming pool, a wine room, a luxury gym and a restaurant selling £250 jars of caviar, served by staff who have trained at five-star hotels. It’s all a far cry from the drab, over-heated single rooms we usually associate with nursing homes, and you’ll pay for it too: an entry-level flat at Auriens costs £13,000 a month to rent.

The ultra-luxurious retirement home Auriens Chelsea has its own speakeasy
The ultra-luxurious retirement home Auriens Chelsea has its own speakeasy
Auriens Chelsea also has more traditional amenities, including a swimming pool
Auriens Chelsea also has more traditional amenities, including a swimming pool - Picasa

Heythrop College seemed like a sound investment for Zenprop, who bought the 2.7 acre site for £110 million in 2017. According to Knight Frank, which sold the site, it had a gross development value of more than £750 million. And a luxury retirement home makes sense in London’s richest (and ageing) borough. The 80-plus population in Kensington & Chelsea is due to increase by 44 per cent in the next 10 years (compared with 28 per cent for London)..”

Indeed, high-end retirement homes aimed at wealthy Boomers are popping up all over the UK. You’d be forgiven for thinking that The Landsby, in Stanmore, was a boutique hotel – although you might wonder why all the guests were over 60. The grand lobby opens up to a restaurant, cocktail bar, rooftop gym and library curated by Foyles. A two-bedroom penthouse flat costs £1.55 million. At Fitzjohns’s in Hampstead, residents enjoy a 24/7 concierge, a landscaped garden and a wellness studio. Prices start at £2 million. Knight Frank forecasts that the number of senior living housing units across the UK will grow to 820,000 by 2025. With £40 billion in equity tied up in residential property by people over 65 in central London, investors now consider the senior living sector to be a profitable asset. And if older people are provided the right alternatives, they’ll free up housing stock for families.

The Landsby in Stanmore looks, to all intents and purposes, like a luxury hotel
The Landsby in Stanmore looks, to all intents and purposes, like a luxury hotel
The luxury hotel feel continues inside the Landsby
The luxury hotel feel continues inside the Landsby

“These integrated retirement communities [IRCs] fill the gap between the family home and the nursing home,” says Tom Scaife, the head of seniors housing at Knight Frank. “I visit so many 80-year-olds who are living in one room of their London townhouse because they can’t manage the stairs. We’re letting down a generation if we’re not providing another option before it’s too late.”

Scaife says that Battersea Place, which opened in 2016, was the first upper-end senior apartments in London. They sold at £1 million each and the site is now full with a waiting list. “Since then, and in a relatively short window, we’ve had a lot of IRCs popping up all over London and the Home Counties. ARCO, the body which represents the IRC sector in the UK, says it wants to see a senior living community in every borough.”

Nick Sanderson is the founder and CEO of Audley Group, whose first London scheme – Nightingale Place in Clapham – opened in 2020. It’s more like a private members’ club than a retirement village. Two thirds of the flats, priced from £750,000, have now sold. Sanderson says the typical buyer sells a “4-5-6 bedroom family home” to move there and can enjoy on-site hydrotherapy, opera performances, a gym and a cinema.

“When I set up Audley in the Nineties, the customer was very different in attitude to today’s 77-year-old (the average age for someone to enter a retirement community),” he says. “This generation grew up in the Sixties, they’ve travelled the world, they’re university-educated, they’re part of the tech revolution and they live a great lifestyle. They’re fit and active and they’re not willing to accept the misery of ageing.”

Sanderson, who was recently part of the government’s Older People’s Housing Taskforce, says Heythrop College is a “frustrating site”. Surprisingly, given it would’ve been a direct competitor to Audley, he says it’s a shame it won’t be going ahead. “We’re better served by there being more high-quality retirement villages,” he says. “People still have this idea of a miserable nursing home in their heads and they doubt that a place like us can exist. So the more people see it, the more they’ll believe it.”

Although posh retirement homes are on the rise here, the UK still lags behind the US, New Zealand and Australia, where the industry is treated as a thriving part of the hospitality sector. In the UK, 0.6 per cent of over-65s live in later-living communities, compared with six per cent in the US.

So what went wrong at Heythrop College? It took 15 months for Zenoprop to wrangle planning permission because of concerns over the amount of affordable housing at the plot, and in August 2023, developers asked the local authority for permission to postpone its commitment to build five affordable homes on the site, claiming inflation had made the project a “financial burden”. They were eventually forced to sell up at the end of 2023. It’s just the latest twist for a site which has already had an interesting history. The Victorian building was previously owned by French nuns and was for decades a convent school known as The Maria Assumpta Centre. In 1993, the Jesuit training school Heythrop College moved in (which had been located at Heythrop Hall in Oxfordshire since 1926), and offered Church qualifications as well as degrees from the University of London’s philosophy, theology and social sciences departments.

But in 2018, due to recruitment difficulties, rising costs and “changes in government financing”, the Jesuits closed the college. It was the first significant UK higher education institution to completely close since the dissolution of the original University of Northampton in 1265. The college’s library of 150,000 books – considered one of the finest collections of theology and philosophy in the country – was moved to Senate House. So what’s next for the empty Heythrop College? Most likely a luxury hotel. Arora, who now owns the site, specialises in airport hotels, such as the Sofitel at Heathrow and Gatwick. So perhaps the venue could still take off, even if plans for an aspirational retirement village are currently grounded.

KPF and Arora declined to comment; Zenoprop or Auriens have not responded to requests for comment