The magnetic North

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Big-name developers are vying for Town Centre North, the scheme that may bring John Lewis into Crawley.

Ask any big property developer whether it has submitted plans for Crawley’s new shopping centre, and the reply is generally a mumbled ‘no comment’. The silence is a tacit admission of interest in the Sussex new town that has become a hot development prospect.

On 7 March, Crawley Borough Council and English Partnerships will reveal a shortlist of four developers for the demolition and replacement of the town hall by, possibly, a John Lewis store, three other blocks of shops, 400 homes and a new town hall included within the 200,000 sq ft (18,580 sq m) of offices. Those who made a submission include Hammerson, Land Securities, Capital Shopping Centres and ING Real Estate.

All this would be developed on secondary office and retail space to the north of the Boulevard, and is to be known as Town Centre North.

On 8 February, council officials, English Partnerships and their adviser, CB Richard Ellis, met to review rival developers’ submissions.

Jonathan MacDonald, the council’s head of property and procurement, refuses to say how many developers are vying for the scheme, except that the number was substantial. ‘The quality of the submissions was very good,’ he says. ’Part of our requirement at this stage was that they identify their financial position.’

Estimations of the value of the scheme vary from £500m to £800m. Yet there are two near certainties: the local authority is the main landowner for the proposed 35 acre (14 ha) site, and John Lewis says it would be interested in anchoring the development.

MacDonald summarises: ‘John Lewis is clearly expressing a commitment to Crawley. And we have developed a good working relationship with them. But only a developer can choose to sign an agreement to lease with John Lewis.’

The council and English Partnerships will name the successful developer in June. But it will be at least another three years before planning consent is granted and work can begin. The entire scheme will not be finished until 2011. But MacDonald is already certain of one outcome. ‘The scheme that we will bring forward will raise the town to the status of a regional centre,’ he says.

Crawley is a microcosm of the changing fashions in retail property over the past 50 years. There are the two-storey buildings that characterised the post-war new town and which border the windswept emptiness of Queen’s Square.

Innovation then died out until Greycoat, one of the high-flying developers of the 1980s, opened County Mall in 1992. The 450,000 sq ft (41,800 sq m) enclosed centre was a victim of the recession and only slowly dragged shoppers south from Queen’s Square, when Debenhams took over as anchor from the now defunct Owen Owen.

Retail through the ages

Retail really began to prosper in the town in 1999, when Scottish Widows developed new units on the Martlets, the pedestrianised road that links County Mall with Queen’s Square. The development attracted big names such as H&M, and Crawley seemed to be moving up the retail hierarchy.

Until last month, it appeared that Queen’s Square would deter shoppers from exploring the rest of Crawley’s shops, including the high street. However, it is about to become a square in literal as well as geographical terms. Crest Nicholson is on site with the Pavilion development.

John lewis has made no secret that it was seeking a store
in crawley

Mike Hannigan, Standard Life

The steel frame is just rising from Queen’s Square in a 34,950 sq ft (3,245 sq m) development that will cover half the area, turning it from a large rectangle to a manageable square.

Duncan Tindale, Crest Nicholson’s development executive, says: ‘We have taken action and turned a civic square into a more useable space.’

So far, the Pavilion, which has two levels of retail, has let 10,400 sq ft (965 sq m) to the budget fashion operator Peacocks, a retailer new to Crawley. Slater Menswear is opening its first outlet in West Sussex in 9,400 sq ft (875 sq m) on the upper level. Costa Coffee will open in a 1,500 sq ft (140 sq m) unit facing into the square. There is still 14,070 (1,300 sq m) left to let in the scheme, which does not open until the end of the year.

Tindale says this could either attract eight retailers wanting small shops, or four wanting large shops. The zone A rents are about £110, compared to £135 at County Mall. However, as he points out, such open-air developments are free of service charges. Hanover Property Unit Trust is funding the £11.4m scheme. But Tindale refuses to comment on whether Crest Nicholson has submitted plans to develop Town Centre North to the council.

Development is also pending at County Mall. Standard Life bought the centre last autumn from the original funder Friends Provident, now F&C Property, for £190m.

Mike Hannigan, director of investment at Standard Life, says he was not deterred by a new, larger shopping centre being developed in Crawley when he made the offer for County Mall. ‘There is plenty of potential to increase the retail spend in Crawley,’ he says. ‘John Lewis has made no secret that it was seeking a store in Crawley itself.

The upside for Crawley will be that the town will increase its catchment, but I don’t necessarily think to the detriment of Brighton.’ But he adds that County Mall can expand on the adjoining bus station if it develops, and Standard Life and the council are discussing this. Hannigan also refuses to comment on whether Standard Life has submitted plans for Town Centre North.

But both the Standard Life and Crest Nicholson developments will be dwarfed by Town Centre North. It will fit into the existing prime retail pitch when Woolworths and Littlewoods are demolished on the northern side of Queen’s Square and replaced by a walkway leading to the new shops on the Boulevard. When that happens, the shopper can begin a shopping expedition at County Mall, walk past the new shops in the Martlets, pause in Queen’s Square to visit the Pavilion, leave the square through the Woolworths-Littlewoods cleared site, and finally reach John Lewis.

All of this is causing excitement among Crawley agents. Adam Godfrey, a director in the Crawley office of Stiles Harold Williams, says: ‘Retail is the big story in Crawley right now.

For John Lewis to endorse Crawley’s retail offer would be of positive benefit to the town – not just to the existing occupiers, but also in encouraging new occupiers. What we’re getting is half as big again as County Mall.’

It seems that whichever developer is chosen in June will not only have a ready-made site, but a ready-made warm reception, too. 

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