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Canadian businessman David Graham’s home expansion enrages London neighbours

Previous expansion plans for David Graham’s London home that have not been approved.

Canadian businessman David Graham isn't making a lot of friends among his neighbours in one of London's most exclusive boroughs.

Mr. Graham already infuriated neighbours five years ago with plans to dig four storeys below his mansion in Knightsbridge to build a swimming pool, a three-car garage, a gym, a ballroom, changing rooms, a hot tub, wine cellars, an art storage room and servants' quarters. His subterranean escapade became a hot topic in London and shed light on the growing trend among the superrich for "iceberg homes," named because most of the house is below ground. But after a revolt by neighbours, Mr. Graham backed down.

Now he's trying again. Last month, Mr. Graham submitted plans for a more modest underground expansion, a single storey covering 5,000 square feet, to accommodate a swimming pool, a gym, changing rooms, two bedrooms and an office. In filings with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Mr. Graham has promised to consult neighbours and minimize the disruption caused by construction, which will last nearly two years.

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The pitch hasn't worked and the former cable-television magnate, who was once married to Barbara Amiel Black, is facing an even bigger battle this time. Neighbours are furious about the chaos that months of construction will cause and a number of prominent residents have lined up against the project, including an acclaimed author, a prominent fashion designer and a friend of the royals.

"It's going to make life absolutely hell for anyone living in the area for two years," said Justin Downes, who lives in the neighbourhood and is campaigning against Mr. Graham's plan.

Pamphlets opposing the proposal have been circulating in the area and a website has been launched to block it. Complaints have also been pouring into the borough office from people saying they are fed up with Mr. Graham, who has spent years renovating his 15,000-square-foot house. Some also wonder why a 79-year old needs such a large home.

"This is the vagaries of one millionaire, who, for financial gain, is choosing to ride roughshod over thousands of families," wrote Edna O'Brien, an award-winning author who lives beside Mr. Graham. "Indefatigable as he is with these repeated applications for basement and mega-basement, we also are indefatigable and will do everything to oppose it. It really breaches the frontiers of decent and civic behaviour."

Another neighbour, Marion Gettleson, wrote: "It's the modern day equivalent of Pharaoh's pyramid – the ultimate exercise in conspicuous consumption. It's doubtless not a planning issue, but the applicant is already elderly. He may well not live to 'enjoy' his achievement – created for him alone in the face of the damage it will do to the quality of life of hundreds of his neighbours. He is not Pharaoh."

Others called the project a "development scam" and one neighbour urged the borough not to "give in to these nasty applications full of money and power and agents fees etc. Stand up for our community and residents. Not this tired old applicant and his application lackeys."

Among the high-profile neighbours filing objections are fashion designer Bruce Oldfield and businesswoman Hayat Palumbo whose husband, Lord Peter Palumbo, is a prominent developer and godfather to Princess Beatrice.

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In an interview, Mr. Downes said he can't understand why Mr. Graham would try again, given that his last proposal met with such outrage. "No one understands quite what his motivation is, apart from money," he said, adding that Mr. Graham likely wants to sell the house. He bought the property in 2000 for an undisclosed amount and it could be worth well over $20-million without the renovation. "The crazy part is he's bought a beautiful house, he's involved himself in English society and yet he does the very thing which he knows is going to piss off the very people he wants to be friendly with," Mr. Downes said.

Mr. Graham wasn't available for comment and neighbours say he's rarely at home. He moved to London in 1980 while making a fortune in the cable-television business. He co-founded Cablecasting Ltd. in Toronto in the early 1960s and the company became one of the largest providers of cable TV in Canada before eventually expanding to the United States and Britain. Mr. Graham sold it to Shaw Communications Inc. in 1992 for $307.8-million. He married Barbara Amiel in 1984 and she moved to London from Toronto. They were divorced by 1988 and she married Conrad Black in 1992.

So far the neighbours appear to be winning. This week a group of borough councillors, including the head of the planning committee, came out against Mr. Graham's proposal. "We have seen and read the many concerns expressed by local residents of our ward, and we also believe that this large additional excavation to [the house] should not be permitted," they said in a joint statement.

Kensington and Chelsea has been taking a hard line on "iceberg houses" lately, in part because of the publicity surrounding Mr. Graham's 2012 proposal. These types of projects became popular because building regulations put restrictions on above-ground renovations, but not below. As a result, rich owners started building layers of underground floors to accommodate a growing array of garages, swimming pools and extra rooms. That led to clashes with neighbours who complained about noisy construction and potential damage to their foundations. The number of planning applications in Kensington and Chelsea for basements jumped from 46 in 2001 to more than 450 in 2013.

Last year, the borough introduced rules to limit the size of new basements and prevent homeowners from expanding an existing basement. The boroughs of Islington and Camden have introduced similar regulations and Westminster has started charging an £8,000 fee (or about $13,000) to secure planning permission for any subterranean excavation.

Kensington and Chelsea is expected to decide on Mr. Graham's latest proposal in early March. And while he may face an uphill battle with many neighbours, documents filed at the borough office show he has at least one supporter. James Johnson, who lives in a nearby apartment building, told the council in a submission this week that, "whilst there are plenty of things to complain about in life, as far as I'm concerned after 16 years resident in my apartment this planning application is not one of them."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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