Victoria Gate: Harbinger of New Jobs or Death to Indie Retailers in Leeds?
There’s a lot happening in Leeds these days – the former industrial town has become the starting point for the Tour de France 2014; it just hosted the Sports Personality of the Year awards in the new 13,500 seat Leeds Arena, and the decision has been made to bid for the European Capital of Culture 2023. Already known as the Knightsbridge of the North since Harvey Nichols opened in the Victoria Quarter in 1996, Leeds has become the No. 6 Shopping Destination in the UK after the Trinity complex opened in 2013. That figure will drop to the No. 3 slot in 2016, with the opening of the new Victoria Gate, a brand new store complex that will connect the Victoria Quarter to the new John Lewis via an arcade across Vicar Lane. Victoria Gate will provide 1,500 retail jobs for Leeds, and a remarkable façade of white diamond-shaped “plinths” with a matching 800-capacity car park will bring a further 2,7000 construction jobs to the city. Yet the question remains as to whether, like John Lewis, the retailers will be new to the city, or if they might relocate current high street retailers into the new destination, as seen with the Trinity development. Already there has been a sweeping exodus of high street chains into Trinity, leaving empty buildings along Albion Street and Lands Lane, where Next, River Island, O2, Urban Outfitters and others used to be. The annual rents on these sites are estimated to be £100,000, which leaves many of them empty until there is a retail giant big enough to afford them, or the Council decides to lower them. Given the fact that Trinity already encompasses nearly every major high street brand conceivable, Leeds risks having the empty buildings for a long time.
The new Victoria Gate will be directly across from the bus station, as well as Kirkgate Market, a building that has been struggling for several years to keep up with the sweeping retail changes in Leeds. The Council has already attempted plans to downsize Kirkgate Market in 2012, which is Europe’s largest indoor market. The Council claims that it has not been able to fully utilise all of the available units inside the market; attempts at allowing new businesses to trade at discounted rates for a year under the First Pitch scheme have seen an improvement, but Friends of Kirkgate Market still feel wary of the changes to come with the new John Lewis. In March 2013, the Council approved plans to revitalize Kirkgate Market, to allow ease of access throughout by moving the meat, fish and game stalls nearer together. The biggest change will be to modernise the outdoor façade on George Street so that it harmonizes with the new John Lewis in 2016. On their website, Friends of Kirkgate Market list six core reasons why Victoria Gate is a threat to the market, including most importantly, ruinous and unfair competition from the rival food halls in the new John Lewis. They also claim that while Victoria Gate is under construction, this will cause business to drop at the market due to being directly next door to “dirt, dust, noise, construction vehicles, and the closure of the neighbouring George St car park for at least 42 months.” Catrin Sharp, the Group Head of Media for Hammerson (the company responsible for bringing Victoria Gate to Leeds) responds: “Restoring this part of the city will give the market an opportunity to prosper, showcasing its diversity, character and history to consumers who will be visiting the scheme. Without being in direct competition, Victoria Gate retailers and the market’s traders can operate side-by-side, strengthening the opportunity Victoria Gate will bring to transform this area of the city.” Hammerson will be releasing more names of other retailers who will join Victoria Gate later on in 2014.
Kirkgate Market is not the only business to potentially lose out with the opening of Victoria Gate. Independent retailers across Leeds have already felt the hit when Trinity opened, as Dawn Wood, owner of Fabrication (a local store that offers sewing lessons) and Socent commented in an online forum on Leeds List: “I run Socent, currently based in The Light selling work by locals; our time is nearly up due to them turning it into restaurants. We’ve written to every agent and landlord that has any To Let sign up and had no response or a “no thanks” even though we’ve offered to pay towards the bills, so all we can do is adopt a ‘wait and see’ policy and sort it out ourselves. We also must remember to support the ones [independent stores] we do have, and explore different areas of the city to seek them out. We had a shop at the back of the Merrion Centre for a year that we could afford, but no one visited.” That independent shop owners feel they’re being crowded out is frightening for Leeds, where we are in danger of turning into Oxford Street. Although becoming more like Europe’s busiest shopping street would bring more money into the city, it would also mean that our High Street becomes even further homogenized than it already is. Already difficult as it is to breathe new life into the city’s retail sector for shop owners thinking “outside the box”, the powerful competition and high rents could mean that anyone looking for something “different” would have to actually leave the city to find it.