I think you are right, Phoenix, it makes the building qualify as "mixed use" and probably gets another planning classification. It's a cleft stick...for example in our building we've got Nando's and Wetherspoons in our commercial units which makes the whole complex smell like a chippie, plus a perfectly disgusting offie, which seems to serve no one but the local winos, is hideously expensive, and on top of which they have a huge alsation dog which roams around cr*pping everywhere... and in the big blue building in the Walworth Road (dont know its name) they've got Dragon's Castle downstairs and it's hard to imagine they dont have the odour of egg rolls day and night. However, if one had a flower shop and a newsagent it would be jolly useful. Wonder why there's a problem with the uptake of these spaces....
This particularly true for the building on Great Dover Street: I think it has been advertised as such for nearly 4 years and nothing seems to happen. Great Dover Street isn't the nicest of streets anyway in SE1, and it would look a lot less gloomy if this building was 'brought to life'.
It has been the mantra of urban planners for the last decade that buildings facing main roads should have "active frontages" at ground floor level i.e. shops or outward looking employment uses, and so developers are obliged to include them, and in thery this has to be a good thing.
However, because property investors hate mixed use investments (they'd have to calculate two rates of return on the same building, poor things!), most of the big developers do their sums on the basis that all the returns from the development will come from the residential part, and typically regard the ground floor space as a sunk cost from which they might get a windfall profit if they eventually get a letting.
Therefore the units are often not properly though out as far as layout/security etc. is concerned, and they are often left as raw structural shells. What small to medium sized business is going to take on the project of managing a building fit-out, even if you get twelve months rent-free when there are other business premises available as fully serviced offices?
In the case of Great Dover Street, you have the added disincentives of traffic noise and pollution. IIRC, the ground floor premises are single aspect, i.e. with access from GD only, so that tenants wouldn't even have the option of triple glazing the front windows and running A/C of even basic air circulation from the marginally less polluted back of the building.
Developers care about selling residential units. The commercial ones are included as a sop to planning authorities, and their ultimate use is rarely of great concern to the developer. This of course completely defeats the point of the original planning restrictions.
I'm not in SE1 but I do live in a building similar to the ones you're describing: on a "B" road with several existing shops, we have vacant commercial units on our ground floor with two floors of flats above (in my bit of the building) and four floors of flats above (next door).
The building's been there for two years.
Recently they've gone to the trouble of repainting and smartening up the boarding, so I reckon either they're having a renewed attempt at trying to attract retailers to the premises, or they've given up and want to make what's there look OK as it's here to stay.
Personally I think the street's already got all the shops it currently has the market for, and I'm not surprised that there's been difficulty letting the units.
The rest of the development (which doesn't face onto the main road) is also vacant on the ground floor and was originally intended for commercial use; these units are now due to be converted into more flats.
One of the reasons that residential developers are so happy to accept a requirement for commercial at ground level which on the face of it gives them a loss (it is excluded from the developments viability calcs) is that the alternative is living accomodation immediately against the road, which is difficult to sell. Roads in Bermondsey have a tradition of building hard against the pavement, and where there is living accomodation against the road there is almost no privacy without the blinds permanently down, which makes a typical single aspect flat particularly depressing to be in. There is a new block in Long Lane opposite Valentines where the obviously tiny bedroom with its modern full height glazing is a metre from the narrow pavement. Noisy, no privacy, difficult to naturally ventilate and with an increased risk of burglary. It is hard to see long term value in such a flat, once the new buiding gloss has worn off
I viewed the flat Rick B refers to (The Tanneries). The ground floor of that building is all shared ownership. In my opinion they are horrible and overpriced. All the rooms are an odd shape, and you either have a window almost straight onto the main road, or into the car park round the back. The flats at the front each have a door opening onto the narrow patch of grass which supposedly is a garden. To me it seems more like a security risk and an excuse to get whoever part owns those flats to maintain that space for everyone else. in fact one of them was totally useless sa there was a strange and very rough brick structure blocking off most of the "garden". Despite the apparently large windows they are very gloomy inside. Also the specification of the fit out (door furniture, kitchen, bathroom, flooring) is significantly lower than the private flats above. It's not unusual for the affordable portion of a development to have slightly lower specs (eg. laminate flooring instead of wood, non-granite worktops etc) but the things used in these flats just looked cheap and nasty.
It's been touted that this is solely about 'mixed use' planning rules, but there is more to it than that with recent developments. One of the rules that also applies relates to density and it all but demands, particularly in places like SE1 and with small sites, that the building basically fills the site. When the site fronts onto a major road a flat that's at ground level and facing right onto the pavement is hardly what could be called desirable. Therefore, developers opt for a more continental approach with commercial space at ground floor level. Given that the same density rules might demand the building be a minimum of say 5 floors then if you can you may as well make it 6 and sacrifice the ground floor to shell space that will eventually get let even if this may take some time.