Thursday, 26 April 2012

Not A Holy Trinity

I'm honoured to live in Leeds, and that's me speaking as a proud Essex boy. True, the football team are a bit shoddy, but the city centre is incredible - there's all extremes from cheap to expensive, small to large, indie to multiple and that's before you get onto the markets. And in the middle of this, developers are building a shopping centre that has got the retail press all excited - Trinity Leeds.

Part of this excitement is based solely on the fact that it's the only major development in the country at the moment. What concerns me is that, with all the problems besetting our industry and the record number of empty retail units, no one seems to want to stand up and question whether or not Trinity is a good thing for Leeds.

I've written before about councils ensuring that new developments take into consideration what happens to units that become surplus once a new development is built. For example, can we seriously expect Primark to renew the lease on its 3 storey store on Headrow once it's even larger unit opens 600 yards away? Next will also be leaving behind a large unit literally next door.

You only need to travel a couple of junctions down the M1 to see this in action. The Trinity Walk development in Wakefield has half-emptied the existing Ridings Centre whilst simultaneously failing to fill all of its units. It's incredible to think that a council would ever assume that you can I increase retail units without expecting to create more empty ones.

No one is saying that Leeds doesn't need bigger units based on its footfall and place as a major shopping decision - the Top Shop in particular is tiny at 26,000sq ft when you consider Leeds as a fashionable place with a huge student population. However, the attempt to consolidate all the big players in one place can only hurt Leeds in my opinion.

One of the arguments put forward is that Leeds city centre lacks "focus" - I agree, but this is why it works so well. The Loop Road creates a sprawling shopping area that encourages browsing and meandering while giving good access to the generally excellent public transports links. It's a rare treat as there's excellent pubs in this centre as well, all of which benefit from the idea of Leeds as a city destination for shopping rather than just another big development with a ghetto attached.

At the top end of town sits the Merrion Centre - an earlier attempt to create a "focus". The Centre is old and Morrisons are the anchor store these days, but it does provide a home to a number of good indies. It manages to benefit from Leeds's sprawl but will surely struggle once the gravity pull of Trinity Walk arrives.

We in the industry need to be worried about the sycofantic press this development is getting, especially if we care about having a varied and dynamic retail industry. Every time Zi read about the development, I feel that I'm just reading a press release from the developers themselves. OK, the trade press does depend on a close relationship with business, but some challenge would be good.

While the trade press cosies up to the developers, trade bodies continue to use Vacancy Rates as their headline-grabbing measure for the decline of the "High Street" - all thus does is serve landlords and increases pressure on the government to help them fill the empty space. When of course, the two things that would do the most to help this are taking a hit on rents and not building new space in towns where the old space isn't at least 95% full in the first place!

Meanwhile, I'm just hoping that I'm not going to be too old to get into the 40,000sqft Top Shop once it opens!

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