Could Dead Mall Syndrome be coming to a high street here?

CPO map

The council’s map of the Compulsory Purchase Order area, which will be under scrutiny next month

“Did you have a good Christmas?” is a question that takes on a different meaning for shop-keepers and retail analysts. STEVEN DOWNES on a shopping trend in America of which Croydon’s Hammersfield developers must be wary

Next month will see the opening sessions of what is likely to prove to be the most significant public meetings held in Croydon for a generation.

From February 3, for four days a week, six hours a day, for at least six weeks, hearings will be staged in Fisher’s Folly to examine the merits, or otherwise, of the 141 objections raised to Croydon Council’s Compulsory Purchase Orders for the Whitgift Centre and surrounding property, including the blocking off of an entire public street.

The objectors range from HSBC to Claire’s Accessories, from Rush hairdressers to William Hill. Some explanation of the process, with links to documents, can be found on the council’s website here. The list of the objectors, with links to what they have filed so far (January 13 is the deadline for filing evidence), can be found here.

This inquiry is all being staged, at humungous public expense, so that majority freeholders the Whitgift Foundation and their chosen developers, Westfield, plus junior partners Hammerson, can carve up the centre of Croydon and develop a £1 billion shopping centre.

The CPO inquiry may not go smoothly, and there are some objectors who may prolong the agony. Experts estimate it could be July at the earliest before building work can finally commence, if approval is granted.

But if reports from the United States are anything to go by, then the landowners, property developers, shopping centre managers and their expensively retained lawyers could all be squabbling over something whose time has already passed it by.

At the weekend, The New York Times called malls, “shopping dinosaurs”.

In a business pages article by Nelson Schwartz, the NYT reported that “one-fifth of the nation’s enclosed malls have vacancy rates considered troubling by real estate experts — 10 per cent or greater. Over 3 per cent of malls are considered to be dying — with 40 per cent vacancies or higher. That is up from less than 1 per cent in 2006”.

None of this information has been any part of the unrelentingly gleeful recent Croydon discourse.

“2015 promises to be a great year for our town,” puffs Gavin Barwell, the local Conservative MP, somehow forgetting (again!) to mention that he happens to sit on the board of the property-owning Whitgift Foundation.

Jo Negrini: Croydon's got its timing right over Hammersfield

Jo Negrini: Croydon’s got its timing right over Hammersfield

According to Jo Negrini, the council’s planning and development chief, “We are lucky to have great partnerships working with us at the council and we are lucky because I think we have got our timing right.”

Australian-born Negrini’s previous local authority job was working on a previous development by the Australian-based Westfield, at the so-far successful Stratford, which opened just before the London Olympics did on an adjoining bit of real estate in 2012. So she should know about good timing.

No one mentions, much, though, how Croydon’s super-mall was originally supposed to be finished by 2017, and that now the earliest it might open, if all goes super-well, is just before the end of this decade.

The CPO inquiry could be critical to meeting that slipping timetable. Complaints from the lawyers of objectors that “no meaningful effort to acquire our client’s interests by agreement” had been made by Negrini’s department at the council won’t play too well at the hearings. And the objection that the CPOs – all paid for, at least initially, with public money – had not been used as the option of “last resort” may not impress the inspector, either.

Never mind, eh? Chin-up. Turn that frown, etcetera and so forth…

This week, a Dorking-based newspaper has faithfully reproduced the propaganda pushed its way by some of its most important advertisers, the Whitgift Centre and Centrale. This claims that 1 million shoppers visited the Whitgift Centre in the 10-day Christmas shopping period and were spending money more freely than at any time in the last four austerity-hit years. This, of course, is all helpful towards the ever-jolly Whitgift Foundation-Westfield-Council narrative, which maintains that there is a crying need for a £1 billion new shopping mall in Croydon.

The evidence in the newspaper to support the footfall figures was paper-thin. But it happened to appear in the same week that Sainsburys, one of the country’s leading supermarket chains, also produced their latest audited trading figures, in which they reported a year-on-year fall in sales of 1.7 per cent in the last 17 weeks. Tesco and Marks and Spencer made even gloomier business announcements. Clearly, Sainsburys, Tesco and M&S must have something terribly wrong, while the Whitgift Centre and Centrale are getting things very right.

Yet even within the up-beat soundbytes from the Whitgift Centre management, there was some acknowledgement that customers’ shopping habits are undergoing a fundamental change.

It was a busy Christmas period at the Whitgift Centre, according to the Whitgift Centre

It was a busy Christmas period at the Whitgift Centre, according to the Whitgift Centre

“We have had over a million visitors over the past 10 days and the comments I am getting from retailers is that the average spend is up on last year,” Andrew Bauer, the Whitgift Centre’s manager, was quoted as saying. Bauer also noted that there had been a massive rise in the number of customers using “click and collect” – online shopping, without leaving the delivery in the hands of City Link.

That change in shopping habits, which has been taking a firmer grip with each passing year of the 21st Century, is a serious threat to making the 20th Century concept of the shopping mall obsolete.

The New York Times article calls it “Dead Mall Syndrome”. There’s even a website devoted to the phenomenon: And there’s also a trade association, the International Council of Shopping Centers, who have hired blue-chip PR firm Burson-Marsteller “to put the real story out there and stop the negativity around the idea that the mall isn’t going to exist in the next few years”. How the Hammersfield people must be pleased to hear that.

The spin cannot hide the facts, though. According to the American newspaper report, independent retail analyst figures show that more than two dozen enclosed malls have been closed in the United States in the last four years, adding ominously that “an additional 60 are on the brink”. The paper reports that Westfield is among the operators who have been closing malls in the depressed Mid-West of America, preferring “wealthy urban centres like London and Milan”. Croydon didn’t get a mention…

There may be a reason. The New York Times reports that it is shopping malls at the budget-end of the market which are failing, while in a time of a growing gap between the rich and poor, top-end temples to retail “therapy” continue to thrive.

The New York Times said, “Premature obituaries for the shopping mall have been appearing since the late 1990s, but the reality today is more nuanced, reflecting broader trends remaking the American economy. With income inequality continuing to widen, high-end malls are thriving… as stolid retail chains like Sears, Kmart and JC Penney falter, taking the middle- and working-class malls they anchored with them.”

So, more Waitrose than Lidl then?

“As well as shopping online, everyone goes to real shops. There will always be real shops,” Peter Cole said reassuringly at the recent Develop Croydon conference, which was staged on behalf of the council and which might as well have been called the “Develop Whitgift” conference.

Croydon shoppers eager to experience John Lewis press their noses to the windows before the homeware store on Purley Way opened

Croydon shoppers eager to experience John Lewis press their noses to the windows before the homeware store on Purley Way opened

But Cole is a big cheese at Hammerson, so you’d expect him to say that, wouldn’t you?

Cole’s comments underlined that Croydon’s new shopping centre will need to be top-end, and how it will need to cope with the online shopping revolution.

“What’s changing is that these shops need to be showcases,” he said. “That’s what we are going to provide in Croydon – flagship shops.”

Haven’t Croydon residents heard that before? The closest Croydon has yet got to having a John Lewis to call its own is the homeware store parked out on the Purley Way. As the “flagship shop” to take up the key site where Allders was once a proud symbol of Croydon, a full-on John Lewis department store could be vital to the Hammersfield plans.

But given the close proximity of Bluewater at Dartford, Westfield’s thriving malls at Shepherds Bush and at Stratford, and the enduring powerhouse of Oxford Street and the West End, will a John Lewis and (yet another) multiplex cinema really be enough to transform Croydon’s fortunes to a “top-end” retail destination?

“We are extremely over-retailed,” was the dire warning offered to the New York Times by Christopher Zahas, an urban planner from Oregon. The paper quoted another planner as suggesting that “society has gotten sick of malls”.

The Dead Mall Syndrome, the NYT tells us, is not restricted to low-rent retail centres. It can also lead to the demise of formerly proud, up-scale developments, which are left with boarded up shops, empty car parks and tumbleweed blowing through the high street.

And wasn’t Croydon once regarded as the up-market shopping destination of south London? What might happen if Hammersfield cannot get their top-end retailers to commit to taking space in their super-mall? What if the projections for retailing in the next five years take yet another hit? And what might happen if the CPO pantomime enjoys an extended run, with stubborn objectors demanding their rights to legal appeal?

Westfield, remember, are ruthless about their bottom-line, and rarely sentimental if they think a scheme won’t work.

Ask the people of Bradford.

  • Steven Downes, the editor of Inside Croydon, is a former business editor at Times Online

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9 Responses to Could Dead Mall Syndrome be coming to a high street here?

  1. If Westfield is successful in Croydon, its success will be built on the decline of rivals, both locally and further away. Just as Tesco’s megastore has sucked the life out of Purley, we can expect the same to happen in the town centre, only the ripple effect will be felt in all the districts.

    The empty shops evident in Centrale, North End, George Street, St. George’s Walk, Exchange Square and on the Purley Way might enjoy a mini-boom as Whitgift tenants decant while awaiting the demolition and reconstruction work. But come 2019, they will resume their terminal decline.

    Transport for London’s plans to “improve” road access to central Croydon will enable and encourage car drivers to abandon the likes of Bromley, Sutton, Redhill, Oxted and Reigate to their fate, whoops, enabling our town to enjoy the North Surrey wallet share.

    Still, so long as Australian property developers, multi-national chain-stores and self-centred brown-nosers at the Whitgift Foundation get rich, who gives a toss about local neighbourhoods and small, independent businesses?

  2. It’s just not going to work, not at all and not at any level.

    Hammersfield is all about reinventing the dinosaur at incredible expense and at the cost of incredible local disruption of every describable sort. Shopping is all about fashion and malls are a fashion item….and the fashion for malls is dying and, in some countries, dead already.

  3. Interesting analysis.

    I think some malls work and some don’t. I think the Whitgift Centre benefits from being in a town centre, it’s conveniently placed, and people are used to going there. Those are some of the reasons that it was so successful over the Christmas period. Westfield may be counting on these factors but there is no way to insure that they will carry over to a new development.

    “A bird in the hand…”

  4. I noticed there’s no reports about British (or indeed, European) malls on – a shame as it’s an interesting topic. We know our ancient archeology far better than we know our own town and city centre ruins, and social policy and planning often suffers as a result. The urban exploring forum has a few more malls and shopping centre exploration reports if you’re willing to do some sifting, but there’s clearly room for a UK-based website dedicated to dead and dying malls and shopping centres.

  5. Rod Davies says:

    Perhaps what we should first be doing is seeking to fully understand why Croydon has declined as a shopping centre.
    The 1990’s shift to “out of town” locations along the Purley Way cannot have helped. The loss of commercial employers in the town centre must have had an impact. As too would the Glades development in Bromley.
    At one time the carparks in Croydon seemed to be full to capacity on any Saturday, but this now seems to be a thing of the past.
    The retail offer is also fairly uninspiring with few independents left.
    It seems also that initiatives are poorly thought out and we are left with empty spaces. Exchange Square could have become an interesting area, but the failure to let the shops around the courtyard and to do anything with the pumping station have left it feeling rather sad & lonely. How many sites across central Croydon have sat empty for years?
    I fear that the Whitgift Centre redevelopment will not produce the revitalisation of Croydon that people hope for. A town has to be more than a collection of shops.
    Sadly Croydon Council is so bereft of money, despite years of cut backs, that it hasn’t the resources to intervene.

  6. I do hope that Croydon Council et al can make this scheme work, because I don’t think there is a Plan B.

    Westfield are the experts in these areas and would probably be many people’s choice as a developer. However my research shows that large malls are less of a “destination” than they used to be. Better if they are part of a place that has other attractions to give a wider experience, which is a point Rod makes. Croydon lacks in this area. Town Centre Malls (compared to out of town) suffer due to parking charges and I assume these will continue in the new development. Public transport is fine, but not for “big shops” that Malls target.

    One has to ask yourself why would you choose to visit a mall in central Croydon (or other busy towns) unless you live or work very close by? There are so many alternatives with similar plus more independent shops and one must factor in the internet. At one time you could buy almost anything in central Croydon. But I don’t see those days returning.

    I do hope I’m wrong.

    • Rod Davies says:

      I think the key to success is the “hinterland” that feeds shoppers into these developments. I imagine that not only does Stratford draw on the immediate area, but the draw extends beyond the M25 to Essex and Suffolk.
      I do wonder whether Croydon has what it takes to pull people in from Kent, Surrey & Sussex. My sense is that currently it has such a poor image and poor “offer” that many people wouldn’t bother. Aslo, we in Croydon are effectively very close to the West End.
      There seems to be an absolute absence of a coherent promotion of the town as a place to do business; shop; eat out; or have a night out. There is the Croydon Info centre by East Croydon station but that lacks any sense of excitement or interest, and whenever I walk past it’s the “same old, same old.”
      Perhaps this reflects a singular lack belief in the vision among politicians and Council officers.
      I get more information about what’s happening from Inside Croydon than I do elsewhere, and that has to be worrying for a town in desperate need of revitalisation and rebranding.

  7. andrewflks says:

    I think there is a difference between what’s happened in the US and this scheme in Croydon.

    As pointed out above, this is not an out-of-town development but a central, urban location fed by extensive trains, trams and buses etc. That will stand it in good stead, particularly as towns like Croydon shift from being business districts (that were, in any case, back-office support for headquarters in London, the functions of which are now outsourced abroad), to being more residential in nature as former office blocks and plots are redeveloped for the growing commuter market. That should see this development positioned within a large, car-free catchment.

    Westfield has a bit of a mixed record in the UK. Its White City and Stratford developments have been successful, whereas Derby (let alone the shameful Bradford debacle) have been unpopular. Croydon looks like it will fit into the former category.

    But that only emphasises how local sensibilities and good design will be vital. If this development is to take up such a central, unavoidable position in the town, then it must be sensitive to, and reflective of, the local heritage. Fancy high-end shops will pay the bills and attract the custom, but this centre has to offer more than just food courts, cash tills and several hundred zero-hour service sector jobs. It must not be a bland ‘airport terminal’, but part of the community, both accommodating and working alongside local, smaller businesses for the benefit of all.

    Equally, it must not just spring from another anonymous, off-the-shelf design, ignorant of its surroundings. It is these unsympathetic ‘nowheresvilles’ that are dying in the US.

    These reasons explain why the Westfield in Derby is so unpopular in that city. It is just a large, unremarkable ‘box’ at the bottom of the town, unrepresentative of the city itself, largely featuring the usual, standard, boring chain stores that are sucking money and life from the rest of the city.

    Perhaps the biggest wake-up call of this development is to the high streets of Tooting, Sutton and maybe Wimbledon – places within 20min train/tram journeys, but who do not seem to be developing long-term plans of their own. These places do not need rival schemes, but they do need to figure out how their own town centres and local economies will be affected.

  8. Andrewflks mentions Tooting and Wimbledon, and he is right to do so. Just visit them and you will see why they do not need mammoth Westfields and have resisted them.

    Both have vibrant, busy, bustling, prosperous, varied, tempting and colourful High Streets with an abundance of cafes and interesting bars as well as street markets and, in Tooting, arcades. It’s obvious that people enjoy living there and being out and about in the local centres. Wimbledon has a biggish but not monstrous mall but it is never more full and more busy than the High Street.

    Look and see, planners. There are lessons to be learned.

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