Turn Westfield shambles into opportunity to re-shape our town

The Westfield plans for the redeveloped Whitgift Centre were outdated even before they were off the drawing board, and failed to reflect growth in online retail since 2000

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

I’m glad to see Councillor Sean Fitzsimons is proposing a potentially better way forward for the Whitgift Centre site.

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.

A massive underground car park has left Roubaix’s town square a tree-less, forbidding space

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.

There is something ‘eerily dead’ about the fully pedestrianised North End, Lewis White says

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.

More on this subject: Visit our Westfield archive which traces the whole sorry saga of how Croydon town centre has been subjected to a decade of development blight

Croydon Commentary is a platform for all our readers to off their personal views about what matters to them in and around the borough. To submit an article for publication, just email us at inside.croydon@btinternet.com, or post your comment to an Inside Croydon article that has caught your attention

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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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6 Responses to Turn Westfield shambles into opportunity to re-shape our town

  1. Really excellent and interesting article to which Tony and his cabal will offer no answer whatsoever.

    Like a certain President of a republic that borders on Canada, they only like it when you praise them, cannot stand it when you are critical and, of course, and we mustn’t forget, for this exact contingency they have the wonderful Plan B of whose existence we have been informed but not the content…

  2. John Harvey says:

    With a Tory Secretary of State remaining in office after admitting that he showed apparent bias in favour of a party contributor there can be little faith in the system

  3. kevinwittering says:

    With working from home predicted to be with us forever now, I think that it will need something truly imaginative to rescue this. I doubt they will be able to rely on offices and flats to save them. Businesses won’t want new offices and I always thought that one of the attractions of a flat there is ease of access to the station for the commute into London, why will anyone want to work from a pokey 20th floor flat with a view of the Croydon underpass when they can have a nice place in a small town somewhere?

  4. Chris Flynn says:

    Lewis White for mayor!

  5. Lewis White says:

    Many thanks, but I can’t possibly comment!

  6. Lewis White says:

    Further to Kevin’s comment above, clearly there may indeed be a reduction in office demand, but, as a person who loved commuting and going to the office, due to the social interractions with fellow humans from the station barrier staff, and coffee shoppe people, and reception staff and canteen and cleaning staff, plus colleagues (—even bosses! ) and stakeholders, all I can say about homeworking is that it suits some people for some of the time, at some times of their lives, and not others, and some of us for maybe 2 days a week. The home-worker can be a lonely, bored worker, and poor too, to afford the heating bills. So I hope the office is not finished. But it needs to be designed and built much better.

    Under lockdown, I am getting fatter and fatter, but when I commuted, I walked to and from the station every day, plus had other walking exercise inbuilt into the typical working day as a commuter. Plus the all-important lung exercise, through talking. Keyboard finger exercise is never going to beat the sedentary worker’s looming health time-bomb. The computer is today’s health killer, with most office workers chained to their PC and key board. At least hot desking gives a bit of variety and exercise to the keyboard slave. Static lifestyles kill.

    I think that office design needs to be person-centred, and that every office block needs plants to give water vapour into what are often parched environments (and no risk of Legionalla at all from plants) plus a roof garden. One definition of humane livestock farming is that the animals should be housed with enough space, access to open air, light, fresh water, and sufficient warmth, so that they can express their natural behaviour…… unlike battery chickens and pigs in indoor pens under artificial light, and cattle kept on concrete yards. All, Prisoners in an inhumane system. Office workers too, need to be given decent conditions, and ability to socialise.

    Hence my hope for Croydon would be for flats and officers that are roomy, and the opposite of battery hen cages. Enlightened developers should find a market for such developments, but…….

    sadly, until National UK governments set up a decent new set of construction space standards, and standards for insulation and windows, good daylighting but also shading against excess sunlight, and fresh air, and insist that developers build to meet or exceed the standard, we are on a race for the bottom. Or a slot inside a 56 floor tower block MPC (multi-person container). I just made that last bit up.

    Property is a long term investment, which should reflect real life costs of maintenance, refurbishment and renewal. Is it possible to have a Croydon with quality buildings that are affordable to rent, and easily adapatable to changing uses? Shopping to officers and vice versa, or office to residential? All set in a decent, green and sustainable environment?

    The options for Whitgift centre seem to be (1) Do nothing and decline (2) demolish and live a big hole for decades (3) design a mixed use future with truly green buildings and a decent outdoor environment.

    An enlightened masterplan is needed, and enlightened but commercially realistic developers willing to participate. The Whitgift Foundation has been around for hundreds of years, and should be interested in the long term future, for social and economic reasons.

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