Size and architectural constraints made Cambridge’s Grand Arcade a difficult project and, five months after opening, it is still only 85 per cent let. Ben Cooper weighs up the centre’s success.

As one of the high profile shopping centre developments to be completed this year, Grand Arcade is already having a big impact on Cambridge and East Anglia as a whole.

With two thirds of the retailers signed or trading in the centre new to Cambridge, it would appear that the first box to shake up the city’s retail scene can be ticked. But Grand Arcade, perhaps even more than many of the major projects being completed this year, is a complicated case.

Building a new shopping centre in the middle of a city is never an easy feat. Building a new shopping centre in a city as unique and historic as Cambridge is a challenge on a different level. The city is dominated architecturally by the many university colleges, the oldest of which dates back to the 13th century, and is very compact.

The joint venture Grand Arcade Partnership needed to perform a balancing act when it set about designing the centre. It had to feed a city that was starved of new retail while successfully blending in with the majestic architecture that had stood in Cambridge for centuries.

So, five months after it opened its doors, judging Grand Arcade’s success hinges on two key questions. Has the new build attracted the retail quality the city was crying out for? And have the developers managed to make it complement the cityscape?

Grand Arcade is the first weighty retail addition to Cambridge in the past 30 years. Covering 450,000 sq ft (41,805 sq m), it has also brought a 950-space car park to the city centre and, in keeping with Cambridge’s cycling culture, a 500-space cycle park. The brief was to bring into the city the retailers that had been frustrated for so long at the lack of decent space and go further towards making the most of the wealthy local catchment and 2 million students who come to the city each year.

“It’s a town with a fantastic catchment and obviously a great student population, but it didn’t have the retail offering to match,” says Ronan Faherty, director of retail at Land Securities, which has recently developed a smaller scheme on Christ’s Lane in Cambridge. “Now it’s become a town that can compete.”

The project was taken on jointly by property heavyweight Grosvenor – which is also in the middle of a phased opening of the 1.6 million sq ft (148,640 sq m) Liverpool One scheme – and Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). Among the impressive line-up of retailers on board, the jewel in the crown in terms of pulling in tenants has been John Lewis.

The coveted department store had been waiting for a larger site in Cambridge for 25 years when it signed with Grosvenor and USS in 1997, three years before the scheme was granted planning consent.

In the eight years since, there have been a number of challenges to overcome. Architecturally, it was a unique project around a time when the mood was shifting towards huge in-town builds and uncovered, wider, more open schemes such as Liverpool One were being conceived. The compactness of Cambridge town centre presented masterplanner Chapman Taylor with some interesting obstacles.

“It’s a major piece of urban renewal,” explains Chapman Taylor consultant Nigel Woolner. “One of the challenges we had was accommodating the type of building John Lewis required in the sensitive area it was in. From a commercial point of view it was fundamental to keep John Lewis in the city centre.” According to Woolner, the department store group was thinking of leaving Cambridge in the 1990s, which gave added impetus for the local authority to give Grand Arcade the go-ahead.

The fact that Cambridge city centre is relatively small presented its own problems in the design and planning stage. The developers had to create out-of-town sites to store the rubble from the demolition works needed to clear space because there were no locations available in the city.

With a slightly disappointing 36 out of 52 stores trading just under five months after the opening, the health of the lettings at Grand Arcade could be better. True, there are eight retailers in the middle of fitting out and a further six deals in solicitors’ hands, but the landlords must have hoped for a better showing, especially on the centre’s opening day in March when only 31 of the stores were up and running.

However, the fact that the centre is still only 85 per cent let is not of any great concern, according to Grosvenor retail strategist Jenefer Greenwood. “You don’t get brownie points for just getting people in,” she says. “Ideally you get the right tenants in and that’s what we’ve got. Our priority is for the long-term investment and making sure we’ve got it right.”

Grand Arcade Partnership aims to have a fully trading centre by Christmas, which, according to Greenwood, it is quietly confident it will do.

Many retailers were initially cautious about the scheme, waiting until just before it opened to sign. At the last minute, it landed Laura Ashley, art retailer Castle Galleries and Swedish children’s clothing retailer Polarn O Pyret. Since then, it has taken on The White Company and, in the past three weeks, Quiksilver, Schuh and Gant.

But the big one was, of course, perhaps the UK’s hottest anchor ticket, John Lewis. The moment the department store retailer signed on the dotted line, Grand Arcade Partnership must have breathed a sigh of relief. The pulling power of John Lewis is second to none, giving a landlord the opportunity to be far more selective with the potential tenants that come along.

The fact that John Lewis is operating a 255,000 sq ft (23,690 sq m) store – more than half of Grand Arcade’s retail space – has allowed the developers to hold out for some interesting retailers including Gerry Weber, Apple, Azendi, Links of London, Crew, Rituals and Thomas Sabo. Not only have a strong selection of retailers joined the centre, but two thirds of them are new to Cambridge.

Meanwhile, the scheme has persuaded others to return. Ted Baker has come back to Cambridge after a long absence. Its Southern regional manager Mike Irvine says: “We’ve always found Cambridge a very quintessentially British city with its culture and its heritage and it very much sits with where we are, but there’s never been the appropriate retail space for us.”

In a perfect world, a new centre would open fully let. Putting to one side the fact that this did not happen, Grand Arcade Partnership deserves credit for the tenants it has brought in. In a year when a mass of new retail space has come onto the market, there have been fears that an oversupply could hit developers hard. Recent figures published by some of the big property firms paint a gloomy picture that might imply that this has started to happen – a fact perhaps reflected in Grand Arcade still only being 85 per cent let.

But leave aside the wider issues playing havoc with the market as a whole and Grand Arcade is still a significant achievement. Ensuring John Lewis did not leave Cambridge is possibly the best thing anyone could have done for the city and East Anglia – not to mention the fact that Grand Arcade Partnership has successfully provided a vital retail injection bringing fresh, interesting brands in and plugging leakage to the surrounding area.

The development partnership would no doubt have preferred a healthier lettings picture, but given the climate it is a testament to the strength of Cambridge and the scheme itself that it has enjoyed the success it has.

Since we last visited

Also in Cambridge, Land Securities has completed its mixed-use development on Christ’s Lane. The scheme is made up of eight retail units, a restaurant and 15 apartments. Located on St Andrew’s Street between Emmanuel College and Christ’s College, it opened in November last year and includes Zara, H&M, Bank and Billabong among its retail line-up.

In October, Hammerson and Morley submitted a planning application to Peterborough City Council for a redevelopment of the Westgate area of Peterborough city centre to link it with the existing Queensgate Centre. The 732,000 sq ft (68,000 sq m) mixed-use scheme has already signed Marks & Spencer. Department store group John Lewis anchors the Queensgate Centre, which will include cafés, bars, restaurants and 100 apartments. When it is adjoined to the Queensgate Centre, the scheme will cover 1.6 million sq ft (148,640 sq m).

In Ipswich, Cheval Properties has been granted permission to add 15,500 sq ft (1,440 sq m) of retail space to the Eastgate Centre, which it acquired last year, and pre-let the unit to sports retailer Sports World. Also in Ipswich, Developer Turnstone is preparing to launch an application for a£50 million mixed-use scheme. The Westgate Centre, a joint venture between Turnstone and Revcap, would provide the city with retail, residential apartments and a supermarket.

Centros Miller is preparing for a spring opening next year for its Arc scheme on the former cattle-market site in Bury St Edmunds. The project will create 35 shops as well as catering and residential units and 850 car parking spaces in the town. Retailers that have signed for space already include Debenhams – which will anchor the scheme – HMV, Topshop and Topman, River Island, Next and H&M.