Act now to keep West End top of retail premier league

It may be one of the world’s most iconic shopping destinations, but the West End cannot afford to rest on its laurels.

Factors such as the impending arrival of Crossrail at Tottenham Court Road and the move to pedestrianise Oxford Street - which came a step closer this week with the mayor of London’s announcement of a second consultation - offer the opportunity for a significant facelift that must not be missed.

That was the message from an event hosted last week by property networking forum Movers & Shakers.

One of the key aims for developers is to encourage movement from Oxford Street into the wider West End. Speaking at the event, Anna Bond, director of development at Grosvenor Britain and Ireland, said the company’s aim was to get rid of the “hard edges” of Oxford Street, improving public realm in adjoining streets such as North Audley Street.

If it goes ahead, the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street - which is set for completion in 2020, and could be partly in place by the end of next year - could help. The New West End Company has been campaigning for this for several years. Speaking about the consultation’s launch, its chief executive Jace Tyrrell called for similar public realm improvements across the wider district.

“Removing the wall of red buses from Oxford Street will reduce congestion and improve air quality - improvements that must also be capitalised on across Regent Street, Bond Street and the wider West End,” he said.

As retailers we have to invest in our businesses, in store refits and in business rates - Paul Lorraine, Longchamp

Retailers are also keen to see the areas surrounding their stores improved. Also speaking at the event, luxury accessories group Longchamp’s UK general manager Paul Lorraine said landlords should be investing in the customer experience to help retailers prosper during a difficult time.

“It’s obscene to have beautiful stores with massive amounts of money spent on them and then for customers to have to walk across public realm that is disjointed,” he said. “As retailers we constantly have to invest in our businesses, in store refits and in business rates.” However, he noted that the current political climate “makes you more hesitant about expanding and makes it more challenging to take risks.”

Crossrail effect

The need for improvements is made all the more urgent by the impending arrival of Crossrail.

The development of the new station at Tottenham Court Road - which is the equivalent in size of doubling the height of the Centre Point tower and turning it on its side - has led to formerly disparate land holdings being consolidated and has encouraged large, mostly domestic, investors to buy up property in the area.

Find out more: Crossrail is coming to town

“The people that are really going to get stuck in and make regeneration happen are the long-term investor-owners,” said David Silverman of Derwent London - which owns several buildings in the vicinity. But with Crossrail trains set to start running in just over a year, has the opportunity to make real change already passed the industry by?

“I don’t think it’s too late,” said Silverman, citing Derwent’s ongoing Soho Place scheme, which will comprise offices, shops and a 600-seat theatre. “But it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and as it gets closer and closer, [different stakeholders] need to work together and make it happen.”

The people that are really going to get stuck in and make regeneration happen are the long-term investor-owners - David Silverman, Derwent London

But Lorraine added that Crossrail 2 - which is not yet approved and will open in the 2030s at the earliest - would be an even greater catalyst for regeneration. “We will learn from our mistakes this time around”.

Warning of the risks of doing nothing, he said: “They are investing in the Champs-Élysées in Paris. If we don’t place importance on our own premier retail destination, we will lose our place in that international competition.”

For landowners and retailers, changing the face of a centuries-old, world-famous retail district will not be without its challenges. But if the West End is to retain its iconic status, change it must.

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