Westfield and Hammerson’s new £1.4bn Croydon mega-mall was heralded as a catalyst for regeneration. However, construction is delayed, the scheme is ‘under review’ and traders are being forced to shut up shop. Hugh Radojev investigates
When shopping centre goliaths Westfield and Hammerson joined forces in 2013 to create a new £1.4bn mega-mall in Croydon, people in the borough rejoiced. No longer would it be an overlooked satellite town of London.
The Croydon Partnership – the name of joint venture between Westfield (now Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield) and Hammerson – would build a new 531,000-plus sq ft shopping centre to replace the crumbling Whitgift Centre and properly link it to the Centrale mall on the opposite side of North End, the main thoroughfare of Croydon town centre.
The new shopping centre was supposed to house more than 300 shops and create 7,000 jobs in the area. It would be the £1.4bn jewel in the crown in a wider £5.5bn regeneration plan for the area, which is benefiting from an influx of young professionals and families priced out of the capital.
When the scheme got the greenlight in 2017, Croydon counsellor Jason Perry said “the Westfield-Hammerson development has put Croydon’s town centre on the map as a retail and leisure destination” and heralded it as “a real catalyst for regeneration throughout our borough”.
The new centre was slated to be opened by 2021. But construction is yet to start and the Croydon Partnership has said it is “reviewing the scheme”.
A Croydon Partnership spokesman tells Retail Week: “With the current uncertainties surrounding the UK economic outlook and the major structural changes facing retail, we are currently reviewing the scheme to take account of these challenges.”
But this inaction has left the town’s two big existing shopping centres increasingly derelict and shoppers are turning away in droves.
Springboard marketing and insights director Diane Wehrle says footfall has plummeted 16% over the last year in North End. “This isn’t a universal decline around Croydon, but very much a localised one,” she says, pointing out that in the same period footfall on the high street, just 500 yards away, has grown 7% year on year.
When Retail Week visits the Whitgift Centre at 10am on a Tuesday morning, it is eerily quiet.
Ahmed Dawar, who manages independent fashion retailer Catwalk on the centre’s ground floor, says footfall has dropped notably since the Croydon Partnership acquired the Whitgift Centre.
“Before, it used to be very busy, particularly during the summer,” he says. “For example, you’d maybe get 100 customers through the door in a day. Now you’d take seven or eight.”
A source close to a national high street chain with hundreds of stores says its outlet in the Whitgift Centre is “one of the worst-performing stores” in footfall terms, with shopper numbers “significantly below” the bulk of its estate.
Wehrle says the delay in construction has left the Whitgift Centre stuck in “a vicious circle”.
She says: “Retailers have moved out expecting something to happen with the centre and then nothing happens, so it’s left with a bunch of vacant units. That deters shoppers. The longer that goes on, the worse it is for Croydon.”
A store manager at another independent retailer describes the centre as being like “a graveyard” and has decided to shut their shop.
The empty units are hard to ignore as Retail Week walks around the centre. Local Data Company statistics show that over the last 18 months, store closures in the centre and the surrounding area have far outweighed openings.
Across retail, food and drink, leisure and other businesses, 240 premises have closed in or around the Whitgift Centre since November 2017, compared to just 168 openings in the same period, meaning a net decline of 72 shops.
Of this figure, 28 stores have shut within the centre itself, including national brands such as Sports Direct, Wallis and Tapi Carpets. A further nine retailers have closed in that time in the neighbouring Centrale shopping centre.
The Croydon Partnership insists it is committed to Croydon. In February, it said the new centre opening would be delayed until 2023.
The spokesman says: “We remain committed to the town centre and believe that Croydon has strong potential with flagship destinations outperforming over the long term.”
However, a property industry source casts doubt over whether Hammerson, one half of the Croydon Partnership, wants to proceed with the project: “It isn’t redeveloping Brent Cross any more, it’s looking at selling things off across its portfolio – and I think it wants to get out of Croydon, too.”
“There are no customers… If you don’t get customers, then you can’t pay the rents. It’s that simple, really”
Ahmed Dawar, manager of independent retailer Catwalk
The Croydon Partnership says it is trying to help keep Croydon “an attractive retail destination” while it is reviewing the scheme.
The spokesman adds: “We are liaising closely with retailers and developing a number of proposals to enliven the Whitgift Centre and improve public realm through a series of cultural and business initiatives geared towards reinvigorating the retail space and encouraging footfall.”
However, the lack of footfall is proving fatal for some retailers. Catwalk has been in the centre for nine years but is now closing. Despite the Croydon Partnership’s promises of footfall-driving initiatives, Dawar feels there has been “no support” for independent retailers and rents remain high, even with plunging footfall.
“There are no customers really and a lot of the other [independent retailers] are closing down too. If you don’t get customers, then you can’t pay the rents. It’s that simple, really,” he says.
Can Croydon survive the wait?
Westfield has previous when it comes to delayed developments. The shopping centre giant angered traders and shoppers in Bradford after it mothballed its Broadway shopping centre during the recession. It started work on the site in 2004 before walking away in 2008, leaving a 23-acre hole in the centre of Bradford. It restarted construction in 2014 and opened the mall a year later.
While Croydon is not left with a giant hole in the ground, the delays to the Whitgift Centre have struck a bitter blow to traders – both independent and multiple – who are now in limbo, clinging on to units on a site that has effectively been condemned for demolition and is crumbling around them.
Croydon Business Improvement District (BID) chief executive Matthew Sims says the latest delay to the Whitgift Centre is “difficult to swallow” and concedes that currently “the Whitgift Centre generally, in terms of the offer, is not there right now”.
“You cannot run away from the fact that developments within the town centre affect the community’s wider hope and optimism”
Matthew Sims, Croydon Business Improvement District
Sims is sympathetic to the retailers closing down but says the area must persevere: “We have the pain of vacant units within a prime retail destination at the minute. We will continue to work with partners to bring this scheme to fruition, but as I keep saying, the town centre needs resilience. It needs the strength and ability to suck up and deal with some of the consequences of the delays to the development.”
Sims says the BID has plans in place to fill empty units in the area with “short-term” pop-ups and similar enterprises. He also says the influx of young families to the area presents an opportunity to offer more in the way of “the arts, theatre, music venues and the like”.
However, he’s realistic about just how badly the area needs the Croydon Partnership to fulfil its side of the bargain.
“There’s a real need for the Westfield-Hammerson development to be onsite and complete as soon as possible. You cannot run away from the fact that developments within the town centre do affect the community’s wider hope and optimism, as well as its confidence,” he says.
Wehrle points out that Bradford Broadway “has had a real resurgence” since 2015 and says there will be a “real upside” for Croydon once the site is complete and trading.
Whether local retailers can afford to keep waiting is another matter.