After more than four years of preparation and public consultation, Westgate Oxford is starting to take shape. Kirsty McGregor finds out how it aims to revitalise the city’s retail
Victorian poet Matthew Arnold dubbed Oxford “the city of dreaming spires” in reference to the picturesque backdrop of its university buildings. The city is brimming with history and attracts 9.5 million tourists per year. Yet for a long time it has struggled to compete in the retail stakes, largely because the units available on its main shopping streets – High Street, Cornmarket Street and Queen Street – are relatively small and restricted in number.
This is set to change in October 2017, when the Westgate Oxford shopping centre reopens. The centre, which was originally built in the early 1970s, is being transformed under the joint ownership of Land Securities and the Crown Estate, which bought it from Capital Shopping Centres in 2010.
The £440m project will triple the centre’s size to 800,000 sq ft, housing 100 retailers, and 25 bars and restaurants.
Work started in spring 2015 following four years of research, and construction is now well under way. You can stand inside the concrete shell of what will be the 144,000 sq ft anchor John Lewis and imagine rails of clothing and endless beauty counters in place of the concrete. Across the road and up another set of temporary stairs, you are standing where the seats of the new Curzon cinema will be.
In the nearby marketing suite, a video takes you on a virtual tour of what the new Westgate’s vast stretches of space and rows of shiny new shop fronts. The roof terrace will be the jewel in its crown, providing vistas of dreaming spires on one side and the rolling countryside on the other. In another side of the site, they have built down into the ground to create space for 1,000 parking spaces.
Fashion and footwear brands that have already signed up for units include & Other Stories, Cos, Hugo Boss, Ted Baker, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Victoria’s Secret Pink, Joules, Russell & Bromley, Charles Tyrwhitt, John Lewis, H&M, Michael Kors, Superdry, Primark, Next, Shuch, River Island and New Look.
“We wanted to open a kids’ store in Oxford and we normally like to have them next door [to the main store], but there was no space near our existing unit,” explains Phil Whittle, head of store operations at Schuh. “Because it’s an old city the size of units is difficult. The opportunity to take a big space in Westgate early on was too good to miss.”
Whittle says Schuh will keep its existing store on Magdelen Street for the time being: “We’ve got four years left on the lease from when Westgate opens. We’ll keep our options open. We don’t know if the city will sustain two stores or not, [but] we think it will. We trade very positively out of our existing unit.”
Some concerns have been raised locally about the impact Westgate could have on independent retailers in Oxford. “I think [Westgate] will be a good thing, but it is going to move the shopping hub of Oxford across from Cornmarket, which is traditionally the shopping centre,” explains Graham Jones, spokesman for traders’ group Rox. “Independents could start to lose business as traffic is driven away towards the new centre.”
But Anna Munday, co-founder of local business guide Independent Oxford, counters this: “The development will give Oxford a stronger position as a shopping destination, meaning more people coming to the city to spend money both at the new centre and, if the marketing is done correctly, at independents as well.”
Once Westgate reopens, research firm CACI predicts total retail spend in Oxford will exceed £1bn. Land Securities and the Crown Estate have been careful to take on board any local concerns, and have taken pains to create a centre that will fit into the city, both in terms of how it looks, and the retailers and brands it attracts. For retailers, it provides a long-overdue opportunity to move into or expand in the city.