Fans of Boxpark, the retailing centre to be built from discarded shipping containers next to East Croydon Station, yesterday evening gathered for a glitzy launch (by Croydon standards, anyway; beer and pizza, staged in a tent by a bogus beach).
But there are growing concerns among already established Croydon businesses that the venture, due to open next summer, will enjoy a competitive advantage, having received a multi-million-pound subsidy from the Labour council, and that it will freeze out smaller Croydon artisan traders with its annual rents – expected to be set at around £14,000.
Boxpark’s previous venture, the highly successful pop-up shopping mall in Shoreditch, is noted for its chic, designer label fashion stores, using the shipping containers as “flexible, low-cost retail spaces that stack up to make a brand-new breed of retail destination”, according to their own publicity.
Boxpark is the brainchild of Roger Wade, the creator of streetwear brand Boxfresh. Boxpark, the corporate message-engineers claim, “grew out of his… passion for independent brands, which are increasingly getting squeezed out of homogeneous High Streets”.
Last night’s launch confirmed that Boxpark Croydon won’t be a fashion-based shopping centre, as has proved such a winner in Shoreditch. Instead, the audience was told, “Boxpark Croydon embraces that original ethos – and then some.
“Bigger by far, more ambitions and even more radical, Boxpark Croydon will be a home only for carefully chosen, fiercely independent, fresh-thinking businesses…
“The difference is that this time it’s all about food, drink and events; creating a place that’s part of the casual dining revolution, where retail becomes entertainment amid a riot of colour, sounds scents and the flavours of food from all over the world.”
They are certainly not shy in coming forward. Boxpark Croydon sees itself as “a Covent Garden Piazza for the 21st Century” – although placing an architect-designed glass awning over some spruced-up shipping containers next to a suburban railway line might seem a bit of a stretch as a comparison with the works of Inigo Jones.
“It’s not just about great street food,” Wade said, “it’s about creating a special dining experience. Boxpark Croydon aims to become part of the fabric of local life by colour, creativity and life of it’s own.”
What’s left unsaid by Wade and the various council figures enjoying the free food and drink last night, including Council Leader Tony “Up The ‘Ammers” Newman and Croydon’s Australian-born head of planning, Jo Negrini, is how this might all impact the businesses of the town centre’s long-suffering existing bars and restaurants.
Along North End, London Road and South End, the churn of businesses in the pub, cafe and restaurant sector has been evident for some time, as their owners – many of them the sort of “independent brands, which are increasingly getting squeezed out of homogeneous High Streets” which Wade professes to admire so much – have struggled to keep going through the recession, Croydon’s post-riots slump and now the uncertainty of the soon-to-come closure of the Whitgift Centre.
“The council and their PR agency, White Label, have spent four years and goodness knows how much public money, including some of the riot recovery fund, trying to create the idea of the ‘Restaurant Quarter’ as some sort of destination in South Croydon,” one business owner told Inside Croydon.
“Who is going to make that a ‘destination’ if, when you come out of East Croydon Station, there’s a Boxpark food centre right there?”
To help to persuade Boxpark to develop its venture in Croydon, on part of the Ruskin Square site, the Labour-run council has provided a £3 million loan – apparently after strong urging from Negrini.
This, of itself, is a massive financial leg-up for an in-coming business, and one which few existing Croydon entrepreneurs expect or receive. Indeed, that single Boxpark loan from Croydon Council amounts to a full £1 million more than has been distributed from the Town Hall to existing small businesses and start-ups in the borough in the whole of the last seven years, through a special development fund where the biggest loan allowed is £25,000.
All of that council capital could be considered to be under greater risk if Boxpark sucks trade away from Croydon’s existing businesses.
And as Croydon entrepreneurs consider their options for taking space in Boxpark, the monthly rents charged in Shoreditch are looking too pricy for many.
No figures are included in the glossy marketing brochure which was distributed ahead of last night’s launch, and Boxpark’s sales agents were not available for comment. But when Croydon traders saw the £1,000 plus VAT rate being charged in Shoreditch, there was widespread agreement that it would price-out many local entrepreneurs.
“Those rents might work for fashion outlets in Shoreditch, but you’d need to shift an awful lot of posh baguettes and dishes of olives every day to make that business work here,” the Croydon trader said. “The council might be helping someone with this project, but it won’t be of much help to us.”
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