Our retailing correspondent, MT WALLETTE, on the latest opportunistic comments from a business owner who claims a ‘track record’ of handling the local council
The entrepreneur behind Boxpark claims that he is ready to step in and take over the redevelopment of the town centre after the collapse of the decade-old scheme for the Whitgift Centre that had been proposed by Westfield and Hammerson.
The planning permission granted to what was known, unironically, as the Croydon Partnership, expired last month, leaving the 1960s-built Whitgift Centre a shabby shadow of its former self, dozens of retail units empty and the offices above mostly vacant after 10 years of development blight and 18 months of covid lockdowns.
For the Whitgift’s tenants in the hospitality sector – bars and cafés – the arrival up the road of council-subsidised competition from Boozepark has sometimes been the final nail in their business’s coffin.
There have also been reports in the trade press that Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, the French-based group that took over Westfield, is looking at the possibility of buying out Hammerson, the owners of the Centrale mall, and taking sole charge of the £1.4billion Croydon scheme that stalled long before any of the corporate suits started admitting that their retail dreams had become a south London nightmare.
Indeed, Hammerson has been so badly hit by the downturn in the retail sector and the impact of the pandemic that URW has the economic clout could buy them out altogether – though they probably wouldn’t want the complications of disposing of many of Hammerson’s smaller, less viable regional shopping centres.
The local authority, meanwhile, is sitting on an expensively assembled Compulsory Purchase Order for large sections of the town centre, with no idea of how to make use of the properties.
Given the scale of the development, measured in billions of pounds, it makes the recent intervention of Roger Wade, the owner of Boozepark, appear beyond ambitious: it was only five years ago that former rag trade businessman Wade needed a £3million loan from Croydon Council to get his second Boxpark outlet underway.
Wade’scompany recently announced funding from a private equity firm to help with an expansion plan with 10 new sites around the country. But a multi-billion-pound redevelopment scheme, such as Croydon’s, would be a significant step up for a business which is expected to generate revenues of around £18million in the current financial year.
In an interview with Retail Week, Wade called the end of plans to redevelop the Whitgift Centre “a crying shame” – Boozepark was originally seen as a stop-gap, “meanwhile” scheme to plug the gap while Croydon waited for Westfield – and said he was in discussions with property funds and other stakeholders about the possibility of forming a consortium to take over the redevelopment.
“If people don’t step up, we will be looking to step up and put a consortium together to redevelop the scheme,” Wade said.
“We’re involved with major property funds throughout the UK who have expressed an interest in working with us in Croydon.
“I see no reason why we couldn’t look at redeveloping the scheme. So we’re throwing our hat into the arena. We’ve got a proven track record of dealing with Croydon. We believe in Croydon and if other people don’t believe in Croydon then we’re willing to step up.”
Wade told the trade magazine that putting a consortium together “wouldn’t be too difficult”.
There was a hint at the divisions that have long existed in the Croydon Partnership, as Wade said that he was interested in working with “Hammerson, in particular”.
In his interview, Wade described Croydon as the best performing Boxpark site. “We’ve had a fantastic five years in Croydon. We believe in Croydon and I think we understand retail, we understand leisure and we understand hospitality.”
Later versions of the schemes for Croydon put forward by Westfield and Hammerson reduced the retail space to be developed and doubled the number of residential units to be built, to nearly 1,000 across five tower blocks along Wellesley Road.
Wade appears to be thinking along similar lines.
Any Croydon town centre redevelopment would “have to be a mixed-use development”, he said, “it cannot stack up purely on retailers, so there’s going to have to be a higher proportion of residential and commercial offices within the scheme”.
Given a prime “gateway” location next to East Croydon Station, Wade’s Croydon enterprise was the second Boxpark collection of old shipping containers converted for retail, after a boutique fashion outlet in Shoreditch opened in 2010. Since then, Wade has opened Boxpark Wembley.
Wade is now looking to expand nationally and recently secured investment from private equity firm LDC to help roll-out 10 new sites by 2024, including “Boxhall”, an indoor version set to open in the Bristol docks next year. The company has also announced a “Boxoffice” concept, which would see co-working spaces incorporated into Boxparks as an alternative to home working.
Read more: Council concedes the end of its retail dream for town centre
Read more: Crisis for Croydon as Westfield ‘reviews’ its £1.4bn scheme
Read more: Westfield scale down plans, leaving Croydon a ‘dead duckling’
Read more: Mary Portas, Westfield, Bradford and a £1bn hole in the ground
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