CROYDON COMMENTARY: The clear change in approach from senior figures at the Town Hall, previously cheerleaders for Westfield, over the abandoned plans for a £1.4bn redevelopment of the Whitgift and Centrale shopping centres represent a welcome opportunity to remodel the town centre, says LEWIS WHITE, pictured right
Until the arrival of the internet, the major property companies who own shopping centres had been regarded as gold plated investments. No longer.
Land-owners are probably going to have to settle for smaller returns and abandon the formulaic mall developments of the last 50 to 60 years. That means smaller returns for pension funds… But a new streetscape in Croydon town centre, with streets open 24/7, sounds appealing. A mix of shops and residential, too.
I would like to see the streets designed to let in electric cars, bikes and taxis after 5pm. These streets would have to be adopted by the council to be truly public spaces.
There is something eerily dead about full pedestrianisation, in my view, and indeed, something “neither one thing nor the other” with streets with trams but no cars, both here and in continental Europe. It’s a shame that the High Street (North End) is so narrow, as I would like to see buses let back in, like Lewisham.
Towns are funny places. Some grew up around a central market place, which – if there is still a daily market – can be good and vibrant. One of the saddest places I have been to is Roubaix in the depressed north of France, which as late as the 1970s had a thriving textile trade, like Lancashire and Yorkshire. Today it has a huge market place, with nothing happening. Dead. It also has a huge underground car park, which meant that no trees could be planted in the market square above. So not at all green.
So big open spaces? No, but maybe a series of well-thought-out spaces where the streets are oriented to catch the sunshine, which means not having high-rise buildings on the south side of streets. It is fundamental. Light and warmth, giving an amenable good-to-be-alive feel to a town.
I think that more people living in the very centre of Croydon, plus bringing offices and a mix of big and small shops, would make the town centre more lively, by day and by night, and therefore also more interesting as a place to visit. The risk is that car-borne shoppers desert the town centre completely, and go to places like the Purley Way and further afield, like Blue Water. So providing parking is necessary, very necessary.
We do have quite a number of interesting buildings, on the High Street and in Crown Hill and Surrey Street, if you bother to look above the shop fascia boards. How many buildings have a core of Medieval timberwork that in somewhere like Chester would be opened up to view?
The key thing that makes a town feel alive is bustle, by day and in the evening. Busy-ness. People packed in, popping off buses, into shops, into cafés, into offices. I like to go to London Road, West Croydon, as it has bustle. But it has a huge hole in its fabric – the semi-derelict Zodiac House area. What will be built on this site?
How about reinventing central Croydon as an eco-town, with the buildings all giving a contribution to an eco-responsible town? Heat from shops and offices captured and recycled? Green roofs ? I hesitate to mention it, but Surrey Street is a freezing, shadowed street in winter. A central market up on the High Street, with the Surrey Street stalls all relocated to a sunny open air market could give a real focus to Croydon.
Croydon has had its “Mini Manhattan” phase in the 1960s, with office blocks, the flyover, and underpass. It has had its big shops with department stores such as Kennards, Allders, Grants. It has had the shopping centre phase: Whitgift, St Georges Walk, Centrale. All, in their ways, thriving, for decades.
And before that, it had its Medieval town and Bishop’s Palace period, centred around Surrey Street and its market, all serving the farms and villages of north Surrey, which developed over time into Victorian commerce, entertainment and shops. What next?
There are already numerous very high-rise blocks rising into the Croydon skyline. There should be lots of new residents living in the central zone. But the renewal of the Whitgift Centre and High Street needs urgent attention. The developers have had almost a decade to come forward with options which were mostly outdated even before they were unveiled. Will the council bring forward plans of its own, for the town’s residents and businesses? Will they engage the people of Croydon in the renewal process? Will there be any options?
Over to you, Councillor Fitzsimons.
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