The campaign to rescue the UK High Street has many champions such as Mary Portas and Sadiq Khan and is being fought with varying degrees of success around the country. Another consequence of the revolution in shopping patterns that has largely been ignored however is the decline of the 20th century shopping centre. Once seen by local councils as essential to securing the long term sustainability of their town centres, these largely unloved structures were the key distribution nodes for retail within communities in an age when the only alternative was a Littlewoods catalogue.
Invariably they were dominant in scale, impermeable to the surrounding network of streets and alleys. With hundreds of car parking spaces on the roof or in adjacent multi storey structure and surrounded by multi lane highways prioritising access by vehicles rather than pedestrians, these buildings were despised by architects and the intellectual class. They were considered beneath the dignity of most in the profession and as a consequence, developed as icons of sub design. Temples to Mammon, magnets to mediocrity, the profession left the task of designing these unloved monsters to a small field of practices who formed a close, cosy relationship with their developer clients. One consequence of this intellectual inbreeding was that the buildings developed close family resemblances to each other and displayed a similar disregard for the towns and cities into which they were parachuted. Urban grain was obliterated, loved landmarks erased, whole streets were ‘disappeared’ and town centres depopulated as the cuckoo was accommodated in the nest. And it was a selfish beast too, planned such that they turned their back on the existing town centres, internalised the consumer experience in a covered, air conditioned mall and offer no reason or encouragement to explore the town beyond the glazed lobbies.
Most of the the shopping centres were built by developers and then sold on to pension funds, for whom they were an integral part of long term planning providing ‘guaranteed’ returns for the next 25, 50, 100 years . These guarantees were based on long term leases with reputable high street names backed by strong covenants and it was assumed that they would provide steady year on year growth to help cover the long term commitments of their owners. And for years they did – the majority of district and sub regional shopping centres were built between 1970 and the mid-nineties and most of them provided good returns to their investors during that period. By the end of the nineties however there was a marked change in approach. Developers began to concentrate on fewer larger regional shopping centres such as the Meadowhall in Sheffield, the Trafford Centre in Manchester and Bluewater in Kent. Bigger forces were driving the trend towards fewer bigger malls. One was a common understanding that bigger is better and that by building larger malls the developers would provide new larger space formats for their traditional tenants and attract exotic international brands that had traditionally eschewed malls in favour of authentic High Streets in national and regional capitals. The other force, related to the first but not fully understood at the time was the impact the internet would have upon shopping patterns and the paradigm shift in the function of retail space as a result. Now, after 20 years of exponential on-line growth in retail sales the purpose of physical space is no longer sales per square foot. Space is now required to showcase a brand or product, to do what the internet cannot do – to provide a physical experience in real time, real space. The shop unit is there to support on-line business and make some sales as well. The consequence is that the brands require fewer, larger units located in regionally dominant locations for customers who want the occasional brand experience to support their on line relationship , rather than the monthly trip to the mall of 20 years ago. Regional smaller locations are no longer attractive, no longer required as distribution centres.
All of which is creating a major headache for the current owners of the smaller shopping centres, and, more significantly, the town centres in which they sit. Although they are large and bland and contributed in no small part to the decline of many traditional shopping streets when they were built, in their decline they are leaving town centres deserted, devastated and hollowed out. The zombie mall is typified by rows of vacant units, particularly at upper levels, units occupied by budget or low quality tenants, interiors that have not been updated since 1984, perhaps waiting for a revival in 80’s American hotel lobby style when they might be rediscovered and loved by the post-hipster generation. Meanwhile empty escalators eerily clunk away hoping someone will take a ride. Forlorn security personnel eye visitors with suspicion as there is clearly no reason why anyone should be there as there is nothing to do. Some of these malls can be turned around. Market Place Bolton had not reached zombie status when our client, Moorgarth bought it from the Administrator but it was suffering from 40% vacancies and a general decline in trade as local residents changed their shopping habits away from the town centre in favour of a 25-45 minute drive to the Trafford Centre. Three factors allowed for the transformation of Market Place, from a declining general shopping mall into a community town centre destination. One was the capacity to accommodate a town centre cinema within the structure of the rooftop car park without the requirement for major structural reinforcement. The second reason was the presence of the 19th century vaults below the converted Market Hall, which were opened up to provide and authentic magical environment for restaurants, cafes and a play area. The third reason is a successful partnership between a visionary developer and a local authority that fully supported that vision.
Market Place Bolton
But not every centre can enjoy this beneficial alignment of ambition and circumstance. In some towns misguided planning permissions granted in the noughties for new malls or out of town retail parks have undermined the existing 1980’s mall with new space formats, a more modern tenant mix, modern design, better car access. Together with the change in retail distribution, the old centres are squeezed form both sides leaving them in terminal decline.
The most obvious solution is to demolish them and redevelop. There are circumstances where this is an appropriate solution, where the book value is at a low level and redevelopment values high enough to justify this approach. There are circumstances however, where this is not necessarily the most appropriate or most viable solution. Often the location of these centres is right in the heart of a town centre – wholesale redevelopment would cause further blight to the town centre for the next five years whilst redevelopment plans are drawn up, planning permission sought and granted, structures demolished, new buildings delivered.
The US has seen a huge number of mall closures over the recent years, a result of major over provision in the second half of the last century – most of them have been demolished but some have found new purposes as churches, hospitals and healthcare centres, theme parks – see further research below
One alternative solution we are currently researching is the repurposing of such structures into genuine mixed use town centre developments with a mix of residential, cultural, social and commercial uses – the historic mix of town centres. Arguments in favour of such an approach are many:
Approximately 35% of the costs and the embedded energy of a building lie in the structure and substructure. In addition, the institutional design loadings which these structures were built to were conservative by current standards – live loadings for retail were typically 7.5 kn/sqm with an additional 2.5 kn/sqm for car parking over. By comparison, residential live loadings are 1.5 kn/sqm and typical workplace, 2.5 kn/sqm. So a typical two storey shopping centre with two storeys of car parking over has a design capacity live load of 18 kn/sqm, the equivalent of 12 storeys of residential or 7 storeys of workplace.
So before demolition consideration should be given to retention and reusing structure. Viability of the cut and carve required to open up the deep floor space of retail to allow daylight and sunlight necessary for residential or workplace is a consideration but many of such shopping centres are steel framed with precast flooring systems that can be relatively easily opened up.
Source: Wren. Architecture and design