Westgate Oxford – First Impressions of a New Shopping Wonderland

 

 

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The extension to the Westgate centre in Oxford has been a long time coming.  I traded in the city centre from 1994 onwards and even then I remember it was a hot topic of discussion in the retail ranks.

There have been several false starts since then.  In 2002 plans to extend the centre were blocked by the then secretary of state for being out of keeping with the city centre architecture.  A view I had some sympathy with considering the heritage of Oxford.

Then in 2008 plans to revamp the Westgate were once again shelved due to the financial crisis, even though a major remodelling of Bonn Square just outside the centre had already been completed, including the unpopular removal of several ancient and well loved trees.

For a while it seems like the whole idea had gone away, and by the end of the last decade it was apparent to most Oxford traders that the time for such a development had come and gone.  The advent of the internet, softening consumer confidence, falling footfall in town centres and of course an impending Brexit all appeared to render moot the idea of expanding the retail offer in Oxford.

Parking

There were (and still are) many other infrastructure issues that drag down trade in Oxford, not least the ridiculously high parking charges, poor travel access into the city centre and a culture of almost perpetual roadworks in the area courtesy of the county council.  None of these issues have really been addressed, with the exception of the parking charges which ironically were reduced by the council in order to fall in line with the more reasonable charges being levied in the new centre car park.

After years of ignored complaints to the council from existing retailers about the damage being done to trade and the image of the city by fleecing car driving consumers, they were finally handed a fait accompli by the developers.  Too late for many long gone businesses (my own included) and also a direct contradiction to the council’s stated aims to improve the appalling air quality in the city with an emissions free zone.  Another example of civic schizophrenia from a council who can’t decide if they love or hate local businesses.

In the meantime, the Westgate fell under something of a planning blight of its own making, as units fell empty while plans bubbled under for the site to be demolished at some point in the near or distant future.

Late

In 2014 the project was given the kiss of life once again when an alliance between the Crown Estates and Land Securities committed to transforming the old centre into the kind of retail experience that had come to be expected in major cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham.  But like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland – a story born in Oxford and the main theme of the Westgate opening events – many thought it had all come a little too late.  Still, down the rabbit hole we went.


the so-called ‘lantern’ at the top is a positive bolt-on, looking like it’s made up from discarded double glazing panels lit by a 40 watt bulb


This was intended to be an extension, but it pretty soon became clear that little of the original building would remain or at least be visible.  A new John Lewis store would anchor the project and the main multi-storey car park would be demolished to make way and new subterranean parking structure constructed.

So began 2 years of building works, which admittedly caused less disruption than I expected, apart from the long and convoluted walk from the temporary car park into what remained of the city centre.

The new Westgate finally flung open its metaphorical doors (it’s entirely open at both ends) to the public on Tuesday 24th October.  I took a look around that afternoon after some of the initial hoopla had died down.

The main entrance from the latterly refurbished Bonn Square was impressive from a distance.  Walking up Queen Street the façade dominates the skyline, but seems a bit of a mish-mash architecturally.  If the hole in the front facia was a design afterthought, the so-called ‘lantern’ at the top is a positive bolt-on, looking like it’s made up from discarded double glazing panels lit by a 40 watt bulb.  Perhaps the obligatory blue LED lighting will come later.

An Accident Waiting to Happen

The area immediately outside the entrance is a clearly unfinished mess of tarmac and paving slabs which I was surprised to find led seamlessly from the concourse across the road to the square.  I say ‘road’ because that’s exactly what it is.  A still functioning thoroughfare allowing buses to pass pick their way through the crowds thronging outside the centre.

20171024_184207There’s no warning that the buses are coming save for the poor bus drivers franticly beeping his horn as surprised shoppers hop out of the way.  The seamless nature of the paving gives no clue or cue to the visitor that this is still a functioning road.  Even I forgot and realised I’d just walked straight out into the path of a bus, and I’ve been in that area hundreds of times.

It’s an accident waiting to happen, and unless something is done soon, we won’t have to wait long.  Already there’s much talk in the local press about it, with general impression being given that it was deliberately left in this state so that the local council could prove a point to Chris Grayling who refused permission to fully pedestrianise the area.  Let’s hope that point isn’t made by the serious injury or death of an unwitting visitor!

I also seriously doubt that what is essentially a pavement is going to be able to withstand several tons of bus driving over it numerous times a day.  It won’t be long before the cracks start to appear and this whole daft scenario unravels.  Let’s hope some remedial safety measures are taken soon.  Paving slabs can be replaced, people can’t.

Next I turned into the centre proper and was struck by just how narrow the entrance is.  This is a hangover from the original dimensions of the old centre, but with the full height shop fronts it now seems claustrophobic.  This may change when more of the shop fronts are open.  As it is now well over half of them are still boarded up.

Half Open

This is a theme that repeats as you travel around the centre, as only 60 or so of the 125 units are currently open for business.  The rest are either empty or being fitted out.  We don’t know the exact numbers as yet, although I heard on the grapevine that at least 20% of the centre remains un-let.  Presumably many brands are waiting to see how the land lies before committing themselves.  We’re promised that another 30 stores will be open by Christmas, but that still leaves 35 or so dark.

 

 

 

The centre manager and the developers have tried to put a brave spin on this, claiming that it’s not unusual to have so many voids by the opening day.  To anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of previous centre openings this is plainly whistling in the dark.  I’ve never heard of a centre with so many empty or hoarded stores on launch day.  It remains to be seen how long that situation lasts.


There’s none of your polished granite here, it’s all slabs and drainage panels, much of which looks like it’s already seen it’s fair share of inclement weather


As you leave the long entrance corridor, past an alcove that appears to be the only customer seating area in the whole place, you pop out into the main area.  This is a cavernous hall with the obligatory glass roof, so beloved of mall designers for the past decade, none the less impressive all the same.

The area feels quite cold and soulless though.  Not helped by the grey utilitarian concrete nature of the floor finishes.  There’s none of your polished granite here, it’s all slabs and drainage panels, much of which looks like it’s already seen it’s fair share of inclement weather probably before the roof was fully installed.  Given that the end of this aircraft hangar-like space is fully open at one end, leaving a gap between the main concourse and the entrance to John Lewis, you can perhaps see why the floor looks just like any other pavement.  There are going to be a lot of wet shoes and maybe even snow flurries in here at some point.  I’m not an architect, but I suspect there’s going to be something of the wind-tunnel about this place come the next bout of inclement weather.

Strange Land

Overall it seemed quite drab, not helped by the large empty spaces visible in the basement area below, and of course more dead-eyed shop hoardings.  Yes they were all tastefully decorated with the ever present and somewhat cheesy Alice in Wonderland theme, but they were still empty spaces.  And just in case you weren’t aware that Alice was born in Oxford and the writer of her fantastical adventures was on Oxford Don, the PR company responsible for the launch didn’t lose any opportunity to remind you.  It certainly felt like I was disappearing into a strange land after consuming some kind of hallucinogenic potion.  A shame that there appeared nowhere for visitors to sit down in the mall, not even a giant mushroom.


The phrase “It’ll be nice when it’s finished” just kept knocking on the door of my brain begging to come in.


It was quite difficult to see where the old centre ended and the new one began, but perhaps that was an achievement.  The only cue was the entrance to the original Sainsbury’s store which didn’t look like it had moved from it’s previous location.  It was somewhat tucked away down a side alley, rather like the poor relation that no one wants to talk to at the posh party.

But to be fair, the main shopping area was reasonably impressive.  Nothing particularly new now, but it fulfilled its function well enough.  The usual suspect brands are all there, many of which have decamped from other places in Oxford, leaving behind them empty units like rotten teeth littering the now less well travelled thoroughfares.  But there was really nothing to see that I hadn’t seen dozens of times before.  Perhaps it’ll be more impressive when it’s finished, whenever that is.

Incomplete

And that really seems to be an indefinable point.  The centre is clearly not complete yet, and comments I’ve heard on the grapevine from contractors suggest that work may continue for anything up to 2 months. That takes us dangerously close to Christmas.

 

 

 

This lack of completion was evident throughout the development, with uneven floor surfaces, missing or filthy glazing panels, faulty lifts and escalators and empty planters with pot plants sitting forlornly inside waiting for their forever homes.  The phrase “It’ll be nice when it’s finished” just kept knocking on the door of my brain begging to come in.


Whomever the contractors were need a series kick up the backside


I’ve seen a few new centre openings, and opened my own stores in two of them, namely Bluewater in Kent and The New Bullring in Birmingham.  Both of these centres were to all intents and purposes complete on opening day.  My own store in Birmingham wasn’t and I can still hear the sound of the delivery manager screaming down the phone at me at 2am the morning before launch day asking me why.  It wasn’t actually our fault on that occasion, it was our lousy (yet very expensive) contractors, but I still bore the brunt of the ire.

I suspect something similar in the case of the Westgate.  Whomever the contractors were need a series kick up the backside, and I imagine are already deep into penalty clause money.  If not that might in itself be an answer as to why it’s not finished.  Again, I’ve heard rumours that the contractors tried to push back the opening day subject to the approval of the retailers, but they weren’t having any of it, and with rent free periods ticking and all the other considerations of opening a new store I don’t blame them.

I know that the whole centre was also developed by 3 separate architects.  I’m not sure if that also meant 3 sets of main contractors, but if so that also sounds like a recipe for disaster, the proof of which may well be the pudding that the Westgate is in the middle of right now.

Even relatively fundamental things for a modern shopping centre appeared to be missing.  In a city like Oxford, famed for its poor 4G coverage, Wi-Fi is a must.  Not only was this absent from the mall areas, there also appeared to be connectivity problems in the stores themselves.  Accessorize had no data connections at all and had to rely on paper vouchers to complete card transactions.  I’m not sure if this was a problem local to the store or another snag with the centre itself (the staff didn’t seem to know either), but in these days of contactless cards and pay by mobile, taking 10 minutes to complete a sale on paper just isn’t acceptable.

Of course these issues are transient and will eventually be fixed, but it doesn’t give a great first impression of the new centre, nor of the professionalism of those behind it , and as we all know, in retail first impressions tend to stick.

Some Positives

Enough of the negative stuff though, there are some positives!  The fairly run-of-the-mill lower floors belied the treasure that awaited on the rooftop terrace.  With stunning views of the iconic medieval architecture that makes up the Oxford skyline the best is left for last.

This is where the main eateries and restaurants are located and it’s going to be a summer treat to spend some time there.  Although I suspect it’ll be more challenging for the rest of the year.  Even though the temperature was fairly mild at ground level on opening day, it was still pretty chilly on the rather more breezy rooftop.


stunning views of the iconic medieval architecture that makes up the Oxford skyline


Even so, the views can presumably still be enjoyed from inside the restaurants.  I haven’t checked that out yet as very few of them were actually open (a theme I was becoming used to) and those that were had menus that made my eyes water if not my mouth.

The prices are pretty much as sky high as the location, but that will of course be understandable.  These units will not come cheap and as we all know the VOA won’t be far behind with their council tax assessment.  They’re going to have shift a lot of £20 minimum main courses to cover those overheads.

I joined many others, milling about the terraced areas, checking out the views, but as it was getting dark I headed back down, past the camera crews reporting for local news, the non-functional escalators and the closed cinema, yet another part of the Westgate promise still unfulfilled.

I had another engagement elsewhere so had no time to check out the delights of the John Lewis store.  I hate to say if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all, but it had that look about it.  Maybe next time.

Conclusions

Overall it’s very difficult to get a grip on what the new centre will eventually be like when it’s finished and more fully open.  The Westgate is neither an indoor, nor an outdoor mall and the stores and brands within are obviously setting out to raise the game in Oxford, even though I think that could have been done without the need to blow £440m on a development like this.  It all felt rather unaccomplished and unremarkable.  Maybe it’s the jaded eye of someone who sees behind the facades of these places, maybe it’s the memories of my own frantic forays into the mall culture, I’m not sure.  But I was left with a feeling of something unresolved and lacking that essential spark I saw in places like Bluewater so many years ago.  That may not be Westgate’s fault, even that Kentish behemoth has lost it’s shine now and I really think the age of the me-too shopping mall is coming to an end.  The Westgate and it’s ilk may just be a footnote in that journey.

Certainly it’s half open, half closed beginnings are rather apt considering it’s half in/half out positioning within the Oxford city shopping canon and only time will tell how it finally sits with local consumers and those coming from further afield.  I think the latter category may well struggle to get into the city if the predictions of a tripling of shopping visits to 15 or 16 million a year are to materialise. and I’ve written elsewhere about the likely traffic and parking chaos that’s probably going to ensue.

Yes the centre has made some effort to move people towards other modes of transport, but with the promised 1000 extra cycle racks not yet materialising and the kamikaze nature of the current bus route, it seems those elements are just as much lacking in full formation as the rest of the centre.

The excitement around the new mall also overshadows what I think will be some seriously negative impacts on the rest of the city, not least the number of empty units that are already starting to appear.  The shift in focus of the city towards the John Lewis area is also going to be to the disadvantage of existing department stores in the city, not least the likes of Debenhams and the long standing independent Boswells.  One rather surprising development is the appearance of the first charity store in Cornmarket street, one of the most highly sought after and prime locations in the city, or at least it was.

 

 

 


Only time will prove if some nice views and yet another cavernous retail cathedral will be enough to attract both shoppers and new brands to the city, and time is one thing that an historic site like Oxford has in abundance.


I think that ultimately when the novelty wears off, the overall experience will be pretty unremarkable, with the obvious exception of the roof terrace.  And that’s where I think the centre will win out, especially once the cinema and all the restaurants are open. That’s likely to be a real boost to the night-time economy as getting into town and parking will be much easier than during the busier times during the day.

Wait and See

Until the centre is fully complete and function it’s of course impossible to really know how well it’ll do.  I think the amount of competition in the area, both locally and a bit further afield in places such as Milton Keynes, Reading, the newly expanded Bicester Village and even Westfield London may well be a deciding factor if the predicted transport and parking problems in Oxford become reality.  Those really are the issues that should have been sorted a long time before the first brick was laid in the new Westgate, that would have helped not only the new centre but the city as a whole.

It remains to be seen if these problems will continue to dog the city’s retail and leisure offer, but it’s certain that the roof terrace area in the new centre will be a big draw for visitors and shoppers alike.  Ironically it’s the views that are the best bit of the new Westgate and arguably they’re nothing much to do with the centre itself.  In fact some would say that the inconsistent architecture of a shopping centre plonked in the middle of such splendour actually detracts from the skyline of the city of dreaming spires.  But then again those admiring the view from the Westgate itself won’t really care about that.

There’s no doubt that the new modern centre is a vast improvement on what it replaces, but it’s not enough just be new.  Every shopping mall was new once.  Only time will prove if some nice views and yet another cavernous retail cathedral will be enough to attract both shoppers and new brands to the city, and time is one thing that an historic site like Oxford has in abundance.

With the centre now finally up and running, albeit with a bit of a limp, retailers and managers will be working hard to make it a success and the city will have to come to terms with it’s newest addition.  As Alice herself says as she walks with the lobster through Wonderland, “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then”

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