The Retail Balancing Act

How to Preserve the Local and the Global

September 30, 2019

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Visitors to the London 2012 Olympic Games, and today to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, often wonder why the main route to a park — a major civic space — is through a shopping centre. A reasonable question. The simplest, and somewhat unsatisfying answer is that Stratford was one of the poorest parts of not just London but the entire UK when the Westfield Group expressed an interest in investing there, and the local authority jumped at the offer. The London 2012 Games were hardly a twinkle in anyone’s eye and a Westfield shopping centre would, of course, ‘regenerate’ the area, with 280 shops and 70 restaurants providing some 8,000 new jobs.

Today, businesses that existed prior to Westfield Stratford City cannot afford the leases the new shopping centre demands. As a result, many of the surrounding streets are plagued by vacant and boarded up shopfronts. This, in turn, produces streets that become inhospitable environments.

Westfield Stratford City
(Richard Croft/Geograph)

This story is not an unusual one. It is well known now that shopping malls can sap the energy from local businesses, especially if they are selling similar products to the multi-nationals. Yet in an era when the viability of the main street is in question, thanks to on-line shopping, it is worthwhile to seek sustainable retail and town center models that provide a healthy balance of independent local retail and informal activities, alongside the multi-nationals.

The Stratford Shopping Centre, situated immediately east of Westfield Stratford City, presents an interesting, albeit not perfect, dynamic in conjunction with its newer neighbour. Built in 1974 on the site of an outdoor market, a condition of its construction was that it retain the existing market stalls. While not an architectural gem, it is a counterpoint to Westfield that fulfils an obvious need and is an important local community venue and amenity. It provides fresh fruit and vegetables at prices lower than the big grocery stores, along with products such as kielbasa and plantains that reflect the demographic makeup of the area. As well, in sharp contrast to Westfield, after hours the mall often gives the space over to skateboarders who enjoy the spacious smooth surface and reverberations from their portable music systems.

Another interesting precedent offering a mix of the local and the global is the Marylebone High Street in London, where a welcoming public realm is flanked by active frontages comprising diverse retailers. The properties on this street are under the purview of the Howard de Walden Estate. The ‘Estate’ manages a cross-subsidization that promotes a balance between the chains and the one-offs.

Marylebone High Street
(Malc McDonald/Geograph)

The Marylebone High Street provides an example of clear recognition on the part of a landlord to ensure a mix of the local and global. In the case of Westfield, a more-or-less happy co-existence between their global offering and local retail has evolved — albeit not by design. Two big boxes sit on either side of a busy road with their so-called ‘public realm’ almost entirely internalized and certainly under private management.

As this dichotomy between local and multi-national retail persists we should explore ways to, from the onset of regeneration and revitalization projects, proactively integrate these diverse merchandising worlds. At a time when everyone is pleading for places that support the ‘authentic’ and the local surely we ought to be more demanding and innovative in leasing strategies. It is ultimately paramount that in any given neighborhood all populations are served. This requires recognition that is both spatial — providing the space for the local to flourish — and economic — ensuring both the rent levels and offer are affordable to businesses and local constituents respectively.

Small local businesses are often owned by people with a long standing history in a neighbourhood. As preservation does not refer just to the building fabric but also to the retention of local social and economic qualities, we need to think innovatively about how these community assets — often representing ethnic and socio-economic diversity — might be retained.  Contributions by developers to a small business fund or the re-provision of small tenant space are a few potential mechanisms. Cross-subsidization from the multi-national to the local, while a great tool, may only be possible under specific property ownership scenarios.

New small independent retail should also be encouraged. It is often the complex and time/resources-consuming permitting process that is an insurmountable hurdle for the owner of an independent shop. To this end a streamlining of the process would be welcome, allowing less established shops and pop-ups to ‘test drive’ a retail concept.

There is, of course, a formal aspect to this issue which begs the question of the shopping centre or mall as a typology. Were Westfield’s area of 177,000m2 distributed along the length of streets, and the £1.45bn — Westfield’s price tag — invested in public realm improvements, the number of local jobs would have been the same but we would enjoy active street fronts for the length of a mile framing a healthy and truly public realm.

Economic stratification is not a new phenomenon. In most major cities there are instances where a very different population is being served from one urban block to the next: from Madison Avenue to Lexington Avenue in New York, from Bond Street to Oxford Street in London. Having said that, at the neighbourhood scale, where we strive to create places to live and work that are welcoming and affordable to all, the retail offer should similarly provide an integration of local and global shops and a rich experience for all.

Banner image courtesy domeckopol/Pexels.

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