Richard Baker: Why the Victoria Centre needs a makeover
A FEW months ago I found myself having a chat with one of the most influential blokes in British retailing.
Andy Street is the chief executive of John Lewis, and he was sniffing the commercial air as I spoke to him in the much-admired chain's Victoria Centre store.
In the run-up to our chat, I'd heard rumours that some major retailers weren't too thrilled with the state of the Victoria Centre.
So I asked him what he thought of it, confidently expecting that the man at the top of a chain as prominent as John Lewis might offer a suitably diplomatic answer.
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Instead, he leapt at the chance: "The Victoria Centre does need to be refreshed because it is looking its age.
"The centre needs to refresh its mix of tenants, which all destinations have to do from time to time."
So there it was in black and white. The man at the top of one of the country's most successful retail chains saying out loud that he thought the Viccy Centre looked out of date and didn't have the right shops in it.
The centre's owners, now known as Intu Properties, admitted as much themselves last week when they announced that they'd be forking out £36 million giving it a makeover.
Now, there is a lot that a make-up artist could do for this particular Viccy, but it would take the liberal application of cladding to disguise the fact that it is a child of a time when the answer to all the world's architectural dilemmas appeared to be concrete.
For all I know, cladding is what it might get.
But not even a surgically enhanced face will disguise the problem posed by a 1960s design – the columns which pierce its ceiling and provide much-needed support for the flats above.
They make it well nigh impossible to offer the kind of airy, high-ceilinged and wide open environments that major retailers now demand.
Only an extension to the centre can solve that problem. And there's the rub.
The decision on whether to allow an extension to the Victoria Centre is complicated.
For one thing, Intu's original plans were not going to win any architectural prizes – they resembled a dull, brick box.
For another, the city council has been worried from the start that a massive extension at the back of the Viccy might pull people away from the city centre.
But there is a bigger anxiety. The council had waited for years for Westfield to deliver on a massive plan to redevelop Broadmarsh, only to see it sell out on the eve of the project's start.
It sold out to what we now know as Intu.
For the city that is the fifth biggest retail destination outside London, Broadmarsh is an embarrassment.
Redeveloping it has been a key part of the plans to tidy up the whole south side of the city and the council wants it done before a brick is laid at the Victoria Centre.
Intu doesn't want to redevelop either in isolation. It owns both and there is no commercial logic in one taking trade from the other.
Nottingham cannot afford an impasse. How long before shoppers – and retailers – get bored and go elsewhere?