Retail

A hill to climb? Oxford Street ‘mound’ aims to lure back shoppers


“Build it and they will come” is the logic behind an artificial hill which, come summer, will rise at the end of the UK’s most famous shopping thoroughfare, Oxford Street in London.

The 25-metre Marble Arch Hill or “mound”, inspired by nearby Hyde Park, is a showstopper designed to pull people back to a shopping area that Westminster city council says has suffered as “much or more than any other high street in the country” during the pandemic.

The temporary installation, which will nestle behind the famous Grade I-listed gateway, is a quick fix designed to undo some of the damage done by lockdowns that have emptied city and town centres around the country and sent online sales rocketing.

But bigger and more permanent change is also coming. This week, Marks & Spencer revealed plans to flatten its flagship Oxford Street store for a major redevelopment that will surrender a big chunk of new building space – in what was once one of the most profitable shops in the world – to office workers.

The switch underlines the scale of change expected on high streets across the UK as the tilt to the web renders swaths of shop space obsolete. Hundreds of department stores are empty, closing or – like M&S’s biggest store – being downsized, a shift that has triggered the biggest change in the urban fabric since the second world war.

Rival chain, John Lewis, has already been given the green light to turn 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, more flexible” outlets in local neighbourhoods.

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As Sharon White, the chair of the retail group, presided over a record loss of £517m this week, she talked of an “economic earthquake”. “We’ve seen decades-worth of change in the space of one year. Shopping habits have changed irreversibly.”

An artist’s impression of Marble Arch Hill.
An artist’s impression of Marble Arch Hill. Photograph: MVRDV

If there has been an earthquake, Oxford Street feels like the epicentre. In a normal year, 200 million people make a beeline for its famous department stores and fashion brands.

Cut off from the office workers and tourists who keep tills ringing, businesses have been deprived of £8bn of the £10bn usually spent annually in an area that employs 155,000 people.

In recent times some big names have exited for good. The collapse of Debenhams, Topshop and owner, Arcadia, has left big holes to fill on the street where a growing number of shops selling souvenirs and wheelie luggage has added to the sense of decline.

On Oxford Street this week, the lockdown restrictions mean that shoppers are outnumbered by workmen and shop-window mannequins. The sound of pneumatic drills echos down the empty street as work to widen the once crowded pavements gets under way.

The “mound”, as well as these improvements to the public realm, are the first stage of a £150m overhaul promised by the council. Once the digging is done, the council will inject some greenery into the urban jungle, filling the space with 1,500 temporary plants and creating new seating areas.

An artist’s impression of a new Marks and Spencer store in Marble Arch
An artist’s impression of a new Marks and Spencer store in Marble Arch, London. Photograph: M&S

The crisis has become a catalyst for overdue change in an area which, despite its famous lineup of department stores, can no longer rely on Britons and tourists visiting for a retail fix as spare cash is increasingly spent on entertainment rather than stuff.

“We can’t be complacent and make an assumption that people are going to come back to the West End,” says Debbie Jackson, the executive director of growth, planning and housing at Westminster city council.

“There is a certain totemic nature to the closure of Debenhams, to the closure of Topshop … it’s very difficult to punch above those sorts of headlines. We need to remind people that it’s here and that it is everybody’s West End.”

Topshop’s famous flagship store at Oxford Circus is a shadow of its former self, the empty store now akin to a contemporary art exhibition with only groups of naked mannequins inside. Further up, the windows of Debenhams are blacked out altogether.

But there is also evidence of investment pouring into the street with whole buildings boarded up and under renovation. Jace Tyrrell, the chief executive of the New West End Company, which represents 600 businesses in the area, says empty shops pose a challenge in the short term but there is plenty of interest from other types of occupiers.

Tyrrell predicts that over time, up to 30% of the names in the London shopping district will change, creating a healthier mix that will reduce the reliance on retail in an area that is saturated with shops.

Attractions like Marble Arch Hill could help the West End get back on its feet when the economy reopens, he continues. “If you leave the market to recover, it could be up to four years for London to really get going again. We have to think more laterally. Let’s try the Marble Arch mountain [sic], why not?”

For the time being there is no sign of the “mound”, a structure that will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to build. Work won’t start until closer to the end of the lockdown restrictions, as those involved no doubt fear the folly of building a hill only for no one to be allowed to climb it.



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