“Build it and they will come” is the logic behind an artificial hill that, come summer, will rise at the end of the most famous shopping street in the United Kingdom, Oxford Street in London.
Marble Arch Hill or 25-meter “mound”, inspired by nearby Hyde Park, is a spectacular spectacle designed to attract people to a commercial area that, according to Westminster City Council, has suffered “as much or more than any other street. main country ”During the pandemic.
The temporary facility, to be located behind the famous Grade I gateway, is a quick fix designed to undo some of the damage caused by closures that have emptied city and town centers across the country and skyrocketed sales. online.
But bigger and more permanent changes are also coming. This week, Marks & Spencer unveiled plans to flatten its Oxford Street flagship store for a major remodel that will deliver a large portion of the new building space, in what was once one of the most profitable stores in the world, to workers in office.
The change underscores the scale of change to be expected on main streets across the UK, as the lean towards the web renders swaths of retail space obsolete. Hundreds of department stores are empty, closing or, like M & S’s largest store, downsizing, a change that has brought about the biggest change in the urban fabric since World War II.
Rival chain John Lewis has already received the green light to convert nearly half of its Oxford Street branch into offices, and this week the employee-owned company warned of more department store closures. Instead, dozens of John Lewis-branded areas will open in its Waitrose stores, as well as “smaller and more flexible” outlets in local neighborhoods.
As Sharon White, president of the retail group, presided over a record loss of 517 million pounds this week, she spoke of an “economic earthquake”. “We have seen changes worth decades in the space of a year. Buying habits have irreversibly changed. “
If there has been an earthquake, Oxford Street feels like the epicenter. In a typical year, 200 million people head straight for its famous department stores and fashion brands.
Separated from the office workers and tourists who keep the boxes ringing, companies have been deprived of £ 8bn of the £ 10bn typically spent annually in an area that employs 155,000 people.
As of late, some big names have definitely come out. The collapse of Debenhams, Topshop and owner, Arcadia, has left huge holes to fill in the street where a growing number of shops selling souvenirs and wheeled luggage have added to the sense of decline.
On Oxford Street this week, closing restrictions mean shoppers are outnumbered by shop front workers and mannequins. The sound of pneumatic drills echoes down the empty street as work gets underway to widen once crowded sidewalks.
The ‘mound’, as well as these improvements in the public domain, are the first stage of a £ 150 million reform promised by the council. After the excavation is complete, the city council will inject some greenery into the urban jungle, filling the space with 1,500 temporary plants and creating new seating areas.
The crisis has become a catalyst for backward change in an area that, despite its famous line of department stores, can no longer depend on visiting Brits and tourists for a retail solution, as the extra money is being spent. increasingly into entertainment rather than things.
“We cannot be complacent and assume that people will return to the West End,” says Debbie Jackson, executive director of growth, planning and housing at Westminster City Council.
“There’s a certain totemic nature to the Debenhams shutdown, the Topshop shutdown … it’s very hard to beat those kinds of headlines. We need to remind people that it is here and that it is everyone’s West End. “
The famous Topshop flagship store in Oxford Circus is a shadow of what it once was, the empty store is now similar to a contemporary art exhibition with only groups of nude mannequins inside. Higher up, the Debenhams windows are completely darkened.
But there is also evidence of investments poured into the street with entire buildings bricked up and in the process of renovation. Jace Tyrrell, CEO of the New West End Company, which represents 600 businesses in the area, says empty stores pose a short-term challenge, but there is a lot of interest from other types of occupants.
Tyrrell predicts that over time, up to 30% of the names in London’s business district will change, creating a healthier mix that will reduce reliance on retail in an area that is saturated with stores.
Attractions like Marble Arch Hill could help the West End rebound when the economy reopens, it continues. “If you leave the market to recover, it could take up to four years for London to get back on track. We have to think more laterally. Let’s try Marble Arch mountain [sic], Why not?”
At the moment, there is no sign of the “mound”, a structure that will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to build. Work won’t begin until closer to the end of the lockdown restrictions, as those involved undoubtedly fear the insanity of building a hill just so no one can scale it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism