Ten years ago to the day, thousands of early morning shoppers thronged Churchill Square, awaiting the opening of the sparkling new mall. To some, the 470,000sqft of prime retail space offered a shopping mecca while others saw it as the great behemoth that would crush Brighton and Hove’s independent outlets. A decade on, Lawrence Marzouk looks at the impact of Churchill Square on the city.
Between the 1930s and 1960s, the hive of alleyways between Western Road, West Street and the seafront in Brighton was razed as part of slum clearances.
In its place came one of Britain’s last outdoor shopping centres – Churchill Square.
This windy, bleak collection of shops and cul-de-sacs was built around The Spirit of Brighton – a piece of modern art which epitomised the school of town planning that placed concrete at its heart.
Churchill Square proved a poor cousin to the growing number of American-style covered malls and soon the council was looking at ways to rejuvenate the heart of the city.
In the 1980s, the future looked bleak for Brighton town centre, with the spectre of out-of-town shopping centres looming and uncertainty over the future of the underperforming Churchill Square.
But enlightened councillors decided to hand the freehold of the site to Standard Life which, in 1996, embarked on a two-year, £90 million redevelopment.
On September 4, 1998, 70 new shops, including the country’s third biggest Virgin Megastore, Debenhams, Next and Dorothy Perkins, opened alongside five restaurants and cafés.
Fears had been voiced that the new mall would take trade from other areas of the city.
Western Road suffered for a time as some major chains moved into the newly designed shopping centre.
But today there is almost a consensus that the rebuild has benefited the whole city.
The new centre provided major retailers with the acres of floorspace which was, and still is, almost non-existent elsewhere in the city.
Peter Stocker, secretary of the North Laine Traders Association, said: “We felt confident enough people would continue to shop with us.
“Brighton needed something like that because it would have lost its grip as a regional shopping centre. The previous centre was windswept and not the right size for the city.
“A lot of people have got businesses in North Laine because it is their passion and you do not get their products from the bigger shops.”
He also praised Churchill Square for working alongside smaller shops, rather than trying to drive them out of business as some had feared would happen.
Tony Mernagh, executive director of Brighton and Hove Economic Partnership, said dozens of stores are still queuing up to find space in the centre.
He said: “When the rebuild was first proposed it was feared by some that Churchill Square would decimate the independent sector of Brighton and Hove.
“In fact the redevelopment of Churchill Square was the best thing that could have happened for the city’s wellbeing, including the independent sector.”
Ted Kemble, Brighton and Hove City Council’s cabinet member for enterprise, employment and major projects, said: “For the city economy as a whole, the rebuild of Churchill Square was the best thing that happened in the last ten to 15 years.
“You always get vacant properties in Western Road but they do not stay empty for long.
“I think Churchill Square has benefited North Laine and The Lanes and they complement each other.”
A Churchill Square spokeswoman added: “Churchill Square has performed beyond expectation over the last decade. It has built on its initial success with footfall and retailer performance continuing to grow.
“The tenant mix has altered over the years to accommodate customer needs and ten years on the centre continues to offer Brighton the best of the British high street. We are dedicated to maintaining its position in the heart of Brighton and are committed to giving back to the community from which it draws its success.”
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