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  • Overview

    With the well publicised issues on the high street and the closure of a number of large department stores comes the decision of what to do with the empty sites in order to ensure that they do not remain vacant for long.

    On 10 December the Leisure Property Forum hosted a seminar on repurposing these spaces. This took the form of a number of presentations and then a roundtable discussion and Q & A.

    Brain Tracey from Leslie Jones Architecture started off proceedings by providing us with examples of some stunning re-inventions from the UK and further afield. These covered all manner of underused spaces and their transformation.

    In London, Peckham Levels, a former car park has been turned into a myriad of wonderful spaces for food & drink outlets, retail, the creative arts as well as social/educational enterprises.

    Catford Mews was a former Poundland which lay empty for years and is now transformed into an independent cinema.

    Station F in Paris, once a rail freight depot, is now a multi-use venue for start-ups and small enterprises in engineering and technology, alongside residential and social spaces. All of these large spaces have had creativity and imagination ploughed into them to make multifaceted venues combining leisure, retail and sometimes residential. These are all individual user led spaces closely linked to their surroundings and the locality.

    Next to the lectern was Rob Howarth of JLL who spoke more specifically about departments stores within the UK retail market. According to data, 10% of high street retail sales are driven through department stores, a large slice of the market. It was clear that the department store can no longer be in the same old format, it needs to evolve with the change in consumer demand. Innovation and experience are key in engaging the consumer. The new Debenhams in Watford was highlighted as a particular success and a move towards a more modern establishment, mixing other tenants within the store to offer variety and become a destination store. This is essential in keeping the consumer on the high street as opposed to the internet.

    The need for variety in an offering is clearly essential, looking to include multiple different attractions to entice visitors. This means a good mix between entertainment, food halls, higher end offerings, competitive socialising and fitness. These venues need to adapt in order to reflect social and economic change looking at the current retail market and changes in consumer habits. Operators need to be constantly self evaluating their offering and cannot afford to rest on their laurels.

    Emma Mackenzie from real estate investor, asset manager and developer, NewRiver, spoke about their investment portfolio approach. Many of their shopping centres are in the smaller provincial towns, forming an important part of their local community but had historically been underperforming at the point of acquisition. Once NewRiver deploy their asset management, those centres are re-invented into successful operations. The key to this success is down to harnessing the local spirit and providing spaces and relevant retail and services that suit the individual town’s needs, working with the local authorities to bring inviting and useful community spaces. Towns such as Burgess Hill where NewRiver has submitted planning for a major mixed use town centre redevelopment that will increase the leisure offer and reduce the excess retail space which could then create smaller units used by independents, who were unique to the local area. This is alongside new residential offerings which will help meet local housing demands and increase footfall. Such plans are made possible when working with forward thinking local authorities. Another example is in Wallsend, where the local authority was heavily involved, actually investing in the project, taking on space to run community spaces. NewRiver delivered a new Customer First Community Centre & Library together with right-sizing the existing retail; footfall for the centre and town was significantly boosted. Key for NewRiver is variety, incorporating important community uses such as civic and medical uses into the mix which all increase footfall by attracting a wider spectrum of clientele to the centre.

    It was clear from the panel that there is strong positivity for the high street and shopping centres. The recent successes noted above are evidence that with a clear mind-set and approach there is much to be positive about. The common theme is that these spaces are closely linked to the local community with their engagement to make them spaces that people want to visit for a number of reasons. People now feel they would no longer visit the high street/shopping centres just for one item/reason. With creativity and engagement there is plenty of life left in the high street.

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