£1bn and at least three years’ disruption. And all for what?

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?”

Is the real purpose of the demolition of the Whitgift Centre to make way for 600 apartments?

Is the real purpose of the demolition of the Whitgift Centre to make way for 600 apartments?

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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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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10 Responses to £1bn and at least three years’ disruption. And all for what?

  1. When I last discussed the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre, before the arrival of either Hammerson or Westfield in Croydon, I was told by retailing experts that the principal drawback of taking space in the present complex was the shape of the units, which no longer meet the needs of modern retailers. I was also told that there are a number of international retailers who would happily come to Croydon if they could find the right premises to meet their needs.

    The Whitgift Foundation anticipated the required changes with considerable accuracy. When the centre first opened it foresaw a half life of 25 years followed by a major refurbishment and then a total redesign and rebuild after 50 years.

    There is certainly a need to explain those changes in detail so we can all understand the reason for such a major redevelopment. I think that explanation would best come from Croydon Partnership.

    One thing is certain: the present units are long past their let by date, so if you want a successful retailing centre in Croydon, first you need to demolish the existing one.

    • Nick Davies says:

      For the benefit of those of us who don’t get out much, who are these international retailers? I take it that because they are international retailers they are far more important than British ones and are therefore must haves. Presumably US owned Boot’s doesn’t count because everyone still thinks it’s from Nottingham. I doubt Lidl would be encouraged. I can think of numerous fashion chains you see in shopping centres the world over but they all fit in standard sized units. I can’t think of any shop I see when I walk round, say Kingston, which wouldn’t fit in Croydon and I wonder which shops in Kingston count as international retailers.

      To change tack a little, you sometimes get the feeling the whole exercise exists to get a John Lewis in town, saving the Glee Club a trek to Sloane Square on Saturday afternoon; and once that’s sorted nothing much else, international retailers included, matters.

      I’m not being facetious (well maybe a little bit), it is a genuine question.

      • Careful Nick, you’re letting your prejudices show.
        Please don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger, trying to inject a little reality into the debate.
        I can’t answer your questions, but a retailing expert could.
        And the proof of how unattractive Croydon is to potential inward investors is surely the number of empty shop premises in the town centre. Do you really think a savvy developer would be spending £1 billion on a rebuild if he could get away with a £200,000 tart up?
        As for the John Lewis thing, it’s been an obsession with the Croydon establishment for years. I think it’s part of the city status nonsense on which successive council administrations, both Conservative and Labour, have wasted so much public money.
        They seem to feel that having a John Lewis in town would confer some kind of special status on Croydon, making it more worthy than Bromley or anywhere else in south London (other than Kingston, of course).

        • David is quite right that the prospect of John Lewis blinds and entrances the Croydon establishment absolutely. It seems to be all they can think of: if JL comes to Croydon,all will be well. JL have still not promised, guaranteed, signed on the line to take space in Westfield, any more than they had for the abortive, mendacious Minerva/St Georges Walk fiasco. They are savvy traders: if the Purley Way store is doing well why should they move and expand? My bet is that they won’t.

  2. The artists impression of Wellesley Road is interesting but only for it’s inaccuracy. The carriageway is shown to be about 6 lanes wide with additional space for a line of trees. There is also a footway on the east (nearside) that is about 8m wide. It is not possible to fit all this in the current width of Wellesley Road between the buildings and this is not the first time I have made this point to those promoting changes to Wellesley Road.

    A bit of honesty would help.

    Also, just in case it has been forgotten, there is a tram track that runs down Wellesley Road with proposal for return loops. I cannot see any track, overhead line or a Tramstop. Surely they don’t have plans to move it elsewhere? On a purely technical note, that there will probably be a need for some form of barrier/kerb along the centre of the road to limit the risk of vehicles having a “head on” with trams.

    Of further concern is that no buses are shown or traffic queuing to get into the car parks. It is possible that the “artists” just wanted to “highlight” the new buildings and didn’t want reality to get in the way. I leave the reader to speculate on that.

    For the record I support the principal of redeveloping the Whitgift site but when developers and others repeatedly mislead the public, it is important for the media to bring such matters to their attention.

    • There’s plenty of space for cycling along Wellesley Road – it just needs political will to make Dutch-style segregated high-quality paths happen there.

      • In reality, perhaps. But the artists’ impressions published by Westfield and their mates are not based in reality.

        The false impression given by the falsely wide Wellesley Road drawing, it is suggested, is intended to make people form a more favourable view of the scheme. Making it all seem, somehow, more acceptable.

        What the high-rise accommodation towers might really look like, in a built environment which is not so idealised, we’ll just have to wait until 2020…

  3. In one of his films Michael Moore said: ” Capitalism is against the things that we say we believe in – democracy, freedom of choice, fairness. It’s not about any of those things now. It’s about protecting the wealthy and legalizing greed ” and that is what is happening with the proposed Hammersfield and the superhighway to serve it.

    Greed has blinded people to reality: most of the apartments being bought in Croydon now are not going to be lived in. They are being bought for investment and growth. There will be an unbelievable over-supply of flats once the new Centre is open: Menta Towers, Queens Gardens, Nestle, the new Centre itself plus all the stuff already on the market and not selling.

    They will not be sold and there will not be the purchasing population to nurture a huge new mega-shop. If they are sold they will be lived in by non-spenders, the elderly or the transient. The transport links will be insufficient and ineffective.

    There just is no rhyme or reason to it. Shopping styles will have changed totally before the centre opens and that is likely to be closer to 2020 than anything. People may come once for a quick look but not frequently. What we really need is a vibrant, smaller scale development which offers affordable accommodation together with lively, innovative spaces for smaller, independent traders, the seedbed for a new inner-urban community.

    Watch Boxpark…that will do well, close to the station and the right scale and needing no transport subsidies of any sort. But any lessons from that will be ignored and 10 years from now people will be wandering through the derelict and empty spaces of Barwell’s Folly and say “How could they all have been so stupid?”

    • mraemiller says:

      “Capitalism is against the things that we say we believe in”

      The thing that always makes me laugh with these schemes is it ISNT Capitalism. They are the inverse of free market economics and politics.

      CPOing large chunks of the town centre and then giving that land to a “private” conglomorate is actually about as close to Communism as you can get, but somehow they’re able to pass this off as “supporting” business whereas actually if you think about it as a statement about the free market the statement is that the market has failed.

      The Whitgift Foundation should be allowed to do what they like with their own loand but in my view CPOs should be reserved for widening roads and derelict buildings and that …I have a problem with them being used like this.

      From CPOs to BIDs it”s remarkable how many small state free marketeers want to be so closely involved with market manipulation by the state. One thing’s for sure whatever mantras many of these people trot out about leaving the market to sort its self out when push comes to shove they seem remarkably averse to doing just that…

      • Rod Davies says:

        The term “Capitalism” is banded about as though it were some homogenous entity.
        In an alternative Capitalist world, the majority of people would live in rent controlled housing close to their place of work. Suppressing housing costs by ensuring perpetual oversupply ensures that labour costs are contained.

        Into these residential developments should be developed schools, kindergartens, primary health provision with priority for workers, care facilities for the elderly and others, which makes it easier for workers to manage their domestic lives and attend work.

        By containing living costs and facilitating maximum production capacity, a Capitalist can sell more products and thus generate more income over a longer period. Satisfied workers who believe that they are reasonably provided for do not generally go on strike and do generally conduct themselves well in work and in the wider society.

        Workers with reasonable surpluses of income will invest in their education and that of their children, thus ensuring a steady supply of skilled labour to the capitalist market.
        It is the stupid capitalist that operates over the short term, begrudges a decent quality of life for the workers and seeks only to derive the maximum return over the shortest period. It’s the classic British Boom & Bust Capitalism that we enjoy so much!

        If the Tories, and those parties that have copied them, weren’t so fundamentally stupid they would be building tens of thousands of Council houses every year to simply ensure that wage demands remained low and that UK business remained competitive, and we’d all be richer. Instead the decision makers are only interested in their next bonus and the escalation in the value of their personal property.

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