This post was first published by Croydon Advertiser on 18/01/2019.
Croydon’s Whitgift Centre ‘is dying’ through uncertainty over Westfield
Traders say the number of people visiting the centre is dropping with a lack of clarity over its future.
On a rainy day the water leaking through through the ceiling of Croydon’s Whitgift Centre is caught in buckets dotted around on the floors of the Croydon shopping mall.
Sometime soon it is set to be demolished to make way for the new £1.4 billion Westfield Centre, and it shows.
Many shops have already moved out and some of the traders who are left say times are tough.
But it’s the uncertainty of not knowing when the demolition will start that is really killing the Whitgift Centre.
Just this week, council leader Cllr Tony Newman said he did not know when work – which was previously expected to start this September – will be under way.
And he is not the only one to face such uncertaintly. Shop owners say they have no idea when they have to move out, but are struggling to make a living, claiming less and less people visit the centre.
“Footfall has never been so low”
Some, like Jason Smith even think that Westfield, which has been on the cards since at least 2013, will never be built.
He has been the manager of shoe shop Zucci for more than 20 years.
“I am 100% certain it probably won’t go ahead. We keep getting told it is going to happen this year then that gets moved,” he said.
“Currently the footfall has never been so low. In Croydon there’s big promises of regeneration and investment but it always takes forever to happen.
“Now is the worst time ever in retail and they are thinking about building a shopping centre when all the big boys are shutting. A lot of people that live in Croydon don’t shop in the borough, they go elsewhere.
“Even if they do build this as a Westfield it could be the first centre in history where the locals don’t shop here.”
The 45-year-old admitted that in the past 10 years the Whitgift Centre has been in need of a bit of TLC.
“They have winged it for the last decade, things have needed replacing that haven’t been replaced,” he said.
“The escalators break constantly and we’ve got to be the only indoor shopping centre that you get wet when it rains.”
Denise Delicata who has run Image Framing in the centre since 2002 is also in the dark about the next steps.
“Officially we’ve not been told anything,” she said. “The longer it is left like this the more damage it is doing.
“We don’t get passing trade anymore, all we really get is our regular customers.”
The 62-year-old says she will keep her business open as long as possible before retiring when they are turfed out.
“Luckily we are older, if we were young there is no way we would be sitting her,” said Mrs Delicata. “You can’t build up a business here anymore.
“Before we were busy, there were so many more offices and when it was lunchtime you couldn’t move out there.”
Family businesses are struggling
Clothing business Urban Junction has four shops in South London and has been in the Whitgift Centre for the past 15 years.
Hussain Arif, 49, said: “As a small independent store we won’t be able to afford Westfield.”
The family business is owned by his cousin and he said the Croydon branch is struggling.
“Two years ago it was very good here but now we are just surviving,” said Mr Arif.
“We are seriously struggling the last two years have been a complete disaster. People are confused because there are so many units closed.
“For the last five years they have been saying it’s the last year, I think that is why people have stopped coming.”
Continental Salon used to employ five hairdressers but now 73-year-old owner Ayhan Ozeli works there with just his son.
The hair salon has been in the Whitgift Centre for 35 years, but Mr Ozeli says trade has got worse and worse over the past couple of years.
“It was very busy but today we have had only four customers,” he said.
“We are still paying high business rates but footfall has gone down by about 70 per cent.
“There is no-one here now, it is dead quiet. Some customers are surprised we are still here because they think they are already going to knock the place down.
“It affects our business because a lot of people think there is nothing here anymore.”
He said he does not want to move straight away either as he thinks he would regret it if the centre is around for another three or four years.
Mr Ozeli has written to Croydon Council asking whether they would consider reducing business rates for the shopping centre – He currently pays £610 a month.
We tried to get hold of the Croydon Partnership, which is responsible for the new development to see if they could shed any light on when work would start.
But after repeated attempts the partnership said they would not be commenting at the ‘present time’.
So, like the shop owners uncertain about their future at the Whitgift, we are no wiser as to when work will actually start.
What do we know about Croydon Westfield?
In January 2013 Westfield and property developer Hammerson, who own the neighbouring Centrale shopping centre, announced the creation of the Croydon Partnership.
The Croydon Partnership now owns the Whitgift Centre and is in charge of the new Westfield development.
In late 2017 planning permission for the new shopping centre was given by Croydon Council and a few months later Mayor of London Sadiq Khan gave the proposal the green light.
Last year the partnership secured John Lewis as its flagship store and carried out Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO) to buy up land needed for the develpment.
As well as more than 300 shops, resturants and cafes the plans include up to 967 new homes.