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The recent announcement by Australian retail giant Westfield of theirÃÂ intent to build a ÃÂ£1billion 'super-mall' in Croydon has been met with mixedÃÂ reaction. None more so than in the city of Bradford, West Yorkshire, who'sÃÂ own experiences of this company were not quite what they expected.
The idea of an indoor shopping street, immune to the unpredictability ofÃÂ the English climate and able to draw in curious shoppers all year round isÃÂ not a new concept. In Victorian times the 'Arcade' style shopping centreÃÂ grew in popularity and such covered commercial hubs sprung up across theÃÂ country. Many of these have survived to this day such as the BurlingtonÃÂ Arcade in central London dating to 1819, still offering high end consumerÃÂ goods to those who can afford them whilst attracting legions of curiousÃÂ window shoppers to their opulent passageways.
In the early days such places complemented the high street around them andÃÂ even sparked a regeneration renaissance in their adjoining streetsÃÂ asÃÂ retailers scrabbled to cash in on the consumers they would draw in.
Piccadilly itself draws it's name from a type of shirt collar, Piccadill,ÃÂ that was sold in this area. This was before the days of globalisation as weÃÂ see today and homogenised chain stores were a long way off. The units inÃÂ these arcades were typically high end tailors, experts at their craft,ÃÂ offering highly individual and unique services.
Fast forward to the modern era and newly burgeoning pockets, increasinglyÃÂ outlandish tastes and an 'out with the old, in with the new' attitudeÃÂ ushered in a new retail experience during the 60's. Many of the VictorianÃÂ arcades were torn down to make way for modernist structures that theÃÂ architects were convinced would soon become classics and stand the test ofÃÂ time. Birmingham's Bull Ring was erected to fulfil the same function as theÃÂ ageing arcades on a grander scale, and on Broadway in Bradford the SwanÃÂ Arcade was torn down to be replaced with a glass and concrete tower blockÃÂ with retail units below.
Following the economic booms and collapses of the 80's, the 90's saw theÃÂ return to consumerism in unprecedented levels and as retailers consolidatedÃÂ into ever larger groupings, their need for floor space grew exponentially.
The outcry over the brutalist approach to city centre regeneration of theÃÂ 60's and our new found love for 19th Century architecture meant that it wasÃÂ no longer viable to construct within cities at the pace the marketÃÂ demanded, and so the out-of-town shopping centre was born. Such placesÃÂ received (and continue to receive) massive support from councils in areasÃÂ where they are proposed due to the potential for employment (albeitÃÂ generally low-paid) and income from business rates they promise.
Whilst the benefits that can be derived from these centres have the allureÃÂ of sustainability for a city, the downside, as we have discovered, is theÃÂ death of the traditional high street and the loss of many small independentÃÂ retailers who can no longer afford to keep their doors open through aÃÂ combination of decreasing footfall, increasing business rates and anÃÂ inability to offer loss-leading products or purchase at competitve pricesÃÂ comparable to the bulk buying power of the multinationals.
The proclamation by a company called Stannifer in 2003 that it was toÃÂ build a ÃÂ£350million mixed use retail and leisure super-mall in the heart ofÃÂ the city of Bradford was met with excitement in some quarters of a cityÃÂ that was already showing the first shoots of high street decay andÃÂ stagnation, most notably in City Hall. Retailers in the existing shoppingÃÂ precincts of the centre were understandably nervous. Plans to redevelopÃÂ this area of town were first mooted in 1998 with a partnership betweenÃÂ Bradford Council and a speculative investor called Magellan Properties,ÃÂ though realising that their ambition potentially outweighed their abilityÃÂ to deliver they sold the land to Stannifer to progress the scheme.
Planning permission for the project was granted on 10th September 2003ÃÂ with the promise that 3000 new jobs would be created. Excitement and hopeÃÂ for the future rang high around the the council chamber and was met with aÃÂ crescendo of optimism in the local paper, the Telegraph and Argus.
Demolition of the concrete buildings that had sprung up on the land in theÃÂ 60's, ironically neighbouring the building that replaced the magnificentÃÂ Swan Arcade, began in March 2004. A flurry of activity was seen amongst BradfordÃÂ shopkeepers nearby as everyone vied to be in the best position to exploitÃÂ the new shoppers that would soon be flocking their way en route to the newÃÂ mall. Accordingly, landowners in the surrounding areas increased theirÃÂ rents and forced out some independent retailers in order to cash in onÃÂ higher rates they could expect from chain stores who had missed out on aÃÂ seat in the main arena but could still make a profit from being locatedÃÂ nearby.
Then, in December 2004, Westfield bought Stannifer and took over theÃÂ project.
At first there were no outward signs of problems. Demolition continued andÃÂ by the summer of 2006 the site had been largely cleared with an expectedÃÂ completion set to occur in late 2007. At this time however, Westfield wereÃÂ building their huge centre in Derby and so many of their workmen wereÃÂ unavailable meaning that this date was pushed back. Despite this, a hugeÃÂ foundation was dug into the ground in the place that would house the carÃÂ park for the centre. At this point construction stopped, and was left inÃÂ the same state in which it can be found to this day.
The official line from Westfield is that they are having diffculty inÃÂ convincing enough tenants to offer assurances that they will take up spaceÃÂ in the centre once it is built. BHS, whose existing store on the site wasÃÂ demolished in 2004, announced that they would not be seeking to return. OfÃÂ the other secured tenants announced such as the Arcadia group chains (TopÃÂ Shop, Miss Selfridge, Burton etc), most already have stores elsewhere inÃÂ the city centre which are expected to close if the mall is ever builtÃÂ leaving the city's retail offer unchanged save for more empty units in anÃÂ increasingly deserted high street.
Since 2006 'The Hole,' as it is known locally, has stood empty, a monumentÃÂ to the power of speculative excitement over rational attitudes toÃÂ regeneration. At 20 feet deep and 12 acres in size, with it's rustingÃÂ girders protruding from the muddy, water filled basin, The Hole has becomeÃÂ something of a tourist attraction in the city. Many visitors go to see theÃÂ spectacle and talk to locals of their feelings towards it. It seems strangeÃÂ that such a thing should generate so much interest, but the scale of the siteÃÂ is such that it is simply unbelievable to some that the situation has beenÃÂ allowed to continue as it has. Frustration reached such a peak that at oneÃÂ point the council attempted to buy the land back from Westfield so that itÃÂ could be put to some form of use, but the company attached a price tag so
high that this became an impossibility.
The site has also been a rallying point for resistance to what many see asÃÂ the wanton destruction of the city by their elected council. SeeminglyÃÂ unable to learn from their mistakes, Bradford Council have also approvedÃÂ the demolition of a 1930's art-deco supercinema, the former Odeon, to makeÃÂ way for another nondescript glass and steel 'mixed-use development' in aÃÂ conservation area overlooking the grade 2 listed Alhambra theatre and City Hall. Again, this scheme is dependent on pre-lets which are currentlyÃÂ absent and a spirited campaign has been waged for the last 10 years to save
this much-loved building with its collosal copper domes and ornateÃÂ interior mostly intact. Ironically, if it were not for the Westfield holeÃÂ laying empty for so long, the demolition would likely have already occurred.
The hole has been enough to demonstrate to the people of Bradford that hugeÃÂ companies such as Westfield, and the politicians who are so easily blindedÃÂ by the allure of jobs and investment, may not always be working towards aÃÂ positive conclusion.
Campaigns have been sparked to 'reclaim the hole' in recent years. InÃÂ 2009, a group of local residents decided to replace the hoardingsÃÂ surrounding the site which at the time were still shamelessly laden withÃÂ adverts proclaiming "Your shopping experience coming soon" and "YourÃÂ Westfield" (something that may soon be very familiar to the people ofÃÂ Croydon) with artwork of their own. The Westfield logo was brilliantlyÃÂ subverted to the word "Wastefield" and huge signs asked passers-by "WhatÃÂ the hole's going on?".
Such was Westfield's complete lack of interest in the site, theseÃÂ subversions went unnoticed by the company for a considerable period ofÃÂ time. Council workers sent to remove the new additions made the mostÃÂ half-hearted of attempts before leaving it all in place.
Finally in 2010, Westfield agreed to transfer a small strip of land on theÃÂ boundary of the site to the council as a temporary arrangement in order toÃÂ show some measure of goodwill to an increasingly hostile Bradford Public.
This was to become the Bradford Urban Garden and they gave a small amountÃÂ of cash to a local arts organisation and the council in order to build andÃÂ maintain it. In an incredible display of the unconnectedness of the companyÃÂ with the residents of the city, the first large scale use of this space wasÃÂ as a holding pen for the EDL when they made an ill-fated trip to the cityÃÂ hoping to capitalise on the widespread misconception of the city as aÃÂ hotbed of Islamic extremism. As a large crowd threw missiles and smokeÃÂ bombs at the police lines keeping them within the boundary of the garden, a
group scaled the hoardings and attempted to break out into the city via theÃÂ hole, only to be pushed back into it by waves of local residents who wereÃÂ not willing to allow this group to spark a riot in the city.
Since this 'opening event', the Urban Garden has been reclaimed by theÃÂ people of Bradford and it attracts many on sunny days. Ironically, shouldÃÂ the shopping centre ever finally be built, it will be met with someÃÂ hostility and lamentation at the loss of this space which has also comeÃÂ into use for small community festivals such as the annual Bradford MaydayÃÂ celebrations and the Reggae Sunsplash.
With all being mostly quiet on the Westfield front since 2010, mostÃÂ residents have come to simply ignore the hole. The Telegraph and Argus,ÃÂ still fiercely loyal to the developers and the advertising revenue they noÃÂ doubt expect them to bring, will print the occasional good-news "comingÃÂ soon, honest" story, and in most cases disallow comments on their web-basedÃÂ versions of the articles since they so rapidly fill with outpourings ofÃÂ indignation from the people of Bradford. The only real news from theÃÂ company came in 2011 when they announced revised 'scaled down' plans for aÃÂ shopping centre and won significant concessions from the council overÃÂ business rates in order to try to attract tenants.
The quiet was broken recently by the arrival of 'Occupy Westfield' to theÃÂ site which has bought the spectacle back into the national gaze.
The election of George Galloway as MP for Bradford West in a by-electionÃÂ earlier this year caused an upheaval of political activism in the city. AÃÂ group consisting largely of Respect Party members and supporters andÃÂ financed by businesses close to the party made the decision to capitaliseÃÂ on the recent 'Occupy' movement and occupy the hole. This caused upsetÃÂ amongst the original Occupy activists (being as it is a fiercelyÃÂ anti-capitalistÃÂ movement) since it at first appeared that the demands of theÃÂ group was that the shopping centre should be built immediately. PerhapsÃÂ sensing that they had misjudged the local sentiment in what many perceivedÃÂ as a propaganda stunt, their demands were changed to "something shouldÃÂ happen" and that the recently Labour-led council should take fullÃÂ responsibility for the situation. The original statement made by the groupÃÂ was that they intended to "stay until their demands were met, or for 7ÃÂ days, whichever comes sooner" although they opted to stay for a longerÃÂ period of time than this once it became clear that the pace in whichÃÂ Westfield moves on such matters is pedestrian at best.
Correspondence to and from Westfield was relayed to the public via theÃÂ local newspaper who praised the company whilst often deriding localÃÂ protestors over health and safety grounds. The situation came to a headÃÂ this month when Westfield took the protestors to court for an evictionÃÂ order and won. The bailiffs cleared the hole of tents and people and havingÃÂ toyed with the idea of occupying the Urban Garden instead, the protestorsÃÂ finally left. Whilst the tactics of the group were often questionable, theÃÂ result of bringing the failure of Westfield Bradford to the national eye isÃÂ one for which they should be commended.
And so to the recent announcement that Westfield are to plough ÃÂ£1billionÃÂ into building a new centre in Croydon. This news was understandably metÃÂ with some disbelief in Bradford, and an empathy with the people who mayÃÂ face a similar fate to theirs. Familiar sloganeering and propaganda has noÃÂ doubt filled the local press there and it will be the tip of conversationÃÂ amongst it's residents. There is no doubt that Westfield are once againÃÂ speculating that the recession they claim has stalled the Bradford centreÃÂ will be over by the time they expect the first tills to ring in Croydon.
Should this prove not to be the case however, and the downturn continues,ÃÂ when can the people of Croydon expect to see their shiny new retailÃÂ cathedral? If all else fails, they will be more than welcome to take a tripÃÂ to the North and use Britain's biggest wishing-well in a search for answers.