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The making of the modern city: new models for retail assets and the day/night economy

Consumer patterns supporting physical retail in the UK continue to change. Will the re-building of the M&S flagship store on Oxford Street with two and half floors devoted to new offices herald a new model for destination retail districts ? (Image: Pilbrow & Partners)

At our 'Making of the Modern City' forum discussions were held on the future of retail and in particular the shopping centre. Chief Operating Officer at abrdn's UK real estate division, Simon Moscow explained the challenges brought to the sector by Covid-19, while Fred Pilbrow of Pilbrow & Partners talked about the concept for the new M&S building on Oxford Street (where half of the floor space will be for offices) and Director Gareth Mason at Stride Treglown commented on why cities must plan and design environments for a day to night economy that supports everyone.

Simon Moscow said:

'There has been the structural shift in retail with the rise of internet retailing and general shopping patterns over the last decade. In addition there are issues as a result of the oversupply of shopping centres and town centre retail in the UK. There has been an over development and under demolition issue where retailer owners and investors just kept on building shopping centres with little thought given to the impact that has on the second or third scheme in a town. Then the pandemic came which has escalated all the known problems and shifts in the changing patterns of retail and shopping. There are similarities to the changes currently seen in the office sector today. 'The problem for retail asset owners is around re-adjustment and re-basing of rents and capital values given the over supply issues. There is also a shift in the way occupiers use and lease space with the increase in turnover rents and shorter more flexible leases. We are now moving towards partnerships and collaborations between landlord and tenant, or customers and partners as we now refer to our occupiers. The prime and dominant end of the market will be fine as we are witnessing a resurgent investment market which was dormant last year. In the mid-market territory it is essential that schemes stay relevant for consumers to mix shopping with leisure activities and an experience that you can't get online. 'The concern should be around the stranded centres that have been left behind - what do you do with all these shopping centres? The simple answer is you need to re-purpose them. However, it's complex, time consuming, expensive and requires co-operation from all stakeholders including the local planning authority. You can't just remove a shopping centre from the middle of a town or city district and replace it with an alternative use such as residential. To keep a city centre vibrant, owners must consider how to introduce other uses to complement the retail. For short term gains you can replace a department store with a trampoline park, for instance, but while this may increase footfall, it's a not a long-term solution.'

In the centre of cities, retailers have struggled to entice customers back to their stores before and during the pandemic. To compete with online sales, retailers are turning their attention to how their stores are presented and the physical shopping experience they can offer. Much debate has flowed recently around the demolition of the M&S flagship store in Oxford Street, so Fred Pilbrow of Pilbrow & Partners joined the discussion to describe the concept of the building designed to replace it:

'I think the physicality and the sensuality of cities is important and critical to their future success. To take the M&S store we have designed for Oxford Street, it has to be worth the trip. You have to come into a space which is bright and uplifting and it must smell and feel good. The existing M&S is a rabbit warren, which grew haphazardly (from the 1930s) into adjacent buildings so the floorplates don't align. M&S has data which shows that the retailer doesn't do much business on the upper floors as they are so difficult to get to.

'Our vision is to create big open flexible spaces that are easily accessible from a re-vitalised Oxford street. We conceived the space as rather like a theatre for retail so let's design a frame where you can put on a great show. This has retail at the base of building but what do you do with the rest? That is why we have designed for BREEAM excellent office space above the retail. Oxford Street's success is about how it adapts to a mixed-use future.

'My final comment on shopping centres (as we have been advising on the Churchill Centre in Brighton for abrdn PLC) is that the shopping mall as a monoculture model has had its day so we need to be moving to streets, squares and gardens, embracing the civic quality of the city.'

The discussion turned to the need to develop the day to night economy, and the role of retail in it, not just in London but across UK cities. Director Gareth Mason at architects Stride Treglown remarked on the changing blend of work-life in cities:

' The day to night economy is not just about restaurants, clubs and leisure. It also includes the huge workforce working in healthcare and logistics who have needs. Our requirements have changed and in office sectors we no longer work with a 9 to 5 mindset as we juggle child-care and office work (often from home) the day to night transition is much more seamless as we may go back to our desks after preparing supper. We have a governance level now with the Night Tsar in London, but also around the country in cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol there are champions and also at the local level with the BIDs.

'Day to night is not just for 20 - 40 year old age group, it's for everyone. It might be about blending uses so we are integrating living and working and that adds value to the spontaneity of the place. We talked about the transport hubs at the start and the need for varied travel options with scooters and the ability to use different types of transport at all times ensuring that all feel safe in what they do. We have to be mindful that the twilight period is magical when we might leave the office and continue the night out. Covid-19 has stopped the spontaneity. How do we build on this to allow us to blend our journeys and trips with entertainment and leisure?

Future Cities Forum will be returning to the challenges and opportunities in retail this April. Join us for our discussions in London.


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