CROYDON COMMENTARY: There’s a procession through the centre of town, with the Emperor at its head. Everyone is cheering and clapping. And then a little boy, ANTHONY MILLER, points and says, “What’s the point of the Hammersfield development?”
Several years ago, I said that there was a grand new plan to knock down the Whitgift shopping centre to build in its place a… shopping centre.
So what is the point of the Westfield and Hammerson £1billion redevelopment? What is its USP, its Unique Selling Point?
An animation on the website of the Croydon Partnership – the body created when Westfield and Hammerson came together for the venture – proudly shows us what the new “retail centre” will look like. To me, it looks rather like the old centre.
The size and shape of the site looks much the same. There is a glass-covered pedestrian walkway through the middle. Inside are two or three storeys of shops, each separated by concrete pillars directly above each other on two or more levels… all rather like the Whitgift Centre. There are also some new tower blocks that look to be residential. So is it, strictly speaking, still a “retail centre”?
The new centre “offers over 300 shops”, we are told. In the present Whitgift Centre, there are 113 retailers operating on the site. The site is running at less than full occupancy. But where are these other 187 retailers going to come from?
Perhaps the less vaunted reason for all this is the 400 to 600 new homes proposed.
The new tower blocks in the developers’ animation don’t look depressing; in Westfield and Hammerson’s world, the sun always shines and it never rains. But where are any children who live in these tower blocks going to play in the evenings? On North End? In Queens Gardens? And will there be enough car parking spaces for the 600 households’ residents, plus shoppers?
I asked Gavin Barwell to explain “the point” of it all, and he said: “The point is shopping centres have a shelf life. Same is true of offices – companies do not want 20-storey buildings where each floor has a small floorplate – they want large open places spaces. You are not going to get John Lewis to move into the Allders building; you need to give them modern space. And people now look for a mixture of retail and leisure for a day out so you need more restaurants and a cinema in the centre. And we don’t need all the ’60s office blocks but we do need more housing. And we don’t want a box in the middle of town which is virtually impenetrable once the shops close but a traditional town centre with pedestrian routes running through it.”
It seems that the ultimate purpose is actually to break up the Whitgift “Centre”. Is the truth actually that the shopping “centre” is deemed to have failed?
So we need more housing on the site instead, which might make the Whitgift Foundation more money?
It might indeed be nice to have a cinema in the shopping centre, but there is already a large cinema complex adjacent to the shopping centre at Grants and another on Purley Way run by Vue. And there’s the David Lean. How many cinemas can a town the size of Croydon realistically sustain?
On its website, the Croydon Partnership tells us that a new shopping centre is needed because “for many years the Whitgift Centre has suffered a decline through lack of investment”. Is this true? In the 1990s, a fortune was spent “rebuilding it to an atrium design” – basically adding a roof. It may be due for a revamp, but does it need to be completely rebuilt? Of course the roof leaks, but who’s going to put in any investment when the site is perpetually due to be knocked down and in limbo?
Westfield and Hammerson state that, “The Centre currently discourages pedestrian routes and connectivity to the wider town centre”. So this is about footfall. The Partnership states that the physical layout of the Whitgift Centre “as it is now” does not meet the needs of modern retailers. But it is a big leap to go from that to say that the whole site is unfit for purpose and that it needs to be demolished and rebuilt. And not in phases, but all-in-one-go-that-will-take-at-least-three-years. The original centre was opened in three stages between 1968 and 1970.
But after all this, I am still seeking an answer to my original question: what’s the point? What is “the vision”? Because whatever it is I haven’t quite seen it.
Or does the Emperor have no clothes?
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