Highcross Leicester – the heart of the City
At the centre of a city-wide £3 billion regeneration scheme stands Highcross Leicester - the latest in a series of new high-profile retail destinations to open in the UK. But this is more than a new commercial venture - Highcross will be the heart of a city re-invented. Suzanne Tosh and Robert Collins take a look at this highly anticipated project.
When New Year's Eve drunkenly collapses into January 1st 2009, anyone involved in retail able to construct a coherent thought might well reflect that 2008 was a quite extraordinary year for new, high profile retail developments. Just think about it - in one year we will have seen the opening of Belfast's Victoria Square, Bristol's Cabot Circus, Liverpool One, Westfield London and Highcross Leicester. Hand-in-hand with many, if not most, of these developments came the phrase 'retail-led regeneration'. For despite the pounding retail has taken from economic tempestuousness, the industry has lost none of its ability to excite even the most cash-strapped of customers and thus continues to be the key catalyst for change in many urban regeneration projects.
This is most certainly true of Highcross, the £multi-million retail and leisure development in the centre of Leicester. Due to open its doors to the public on September 4th, its completion will bring to a conclusion a massive series of projects that form a regeneration that is far closer to a heart transplant than a facelift for the city. Other elements include the new 'Curve' performing arts centre, a new business quarter, a new waterside development and the Science & Technology park (to sit alongside the already successful National Space Centre). According to developers Hammerson and Hermes Real Estate, who are investing £350 million in the project, Highcross "will create thousands of new jobs, better shopping, better living and wider opportunities for everyone across the whole of the city".
Certainly it will more than double the size of Leicester's existing retail offer, with 120 stores, 15 restaurants and cafes plus - the now seemingly obligatory - Cinema de Lux multiplex. Additionally Highcross will provide 3,000 car parking spaces, 120 one and two bedroom apartments, providing residential and commercial properties to buy and lease. It is also hoped that the project will catapult Leicester into the UK's top ten status destinations (it currently lies 14th). Overall, says Hammerson's marketing manager Karl Boyce, "Highcross Leicester will have a hugely positive effect on the city when it opens on 4th September. There will be retailers never seen before in the region and landmark buildings designed by leading architects. Highcross Leicester is set to become the region's premier retail, restaurant and leisure destination."
Of course the positive impact on the city will also be measured by the additional employment it will be creating. Indeed, arguably one of the most important elements of such a huge project is the impact on the employable population. Highcross has definitely made a big splash in this regard: according to Hammersons, a recent Jobs Fair attracted more than 5,000 people from across the region, with about 10,000 people in total registering their interest in working at the centre. In addition 'Work Highcross', a partnership of organisations working together to promote the employment opportunities created through the development of Highcross Leicester, has been formed to offer career advice and training to make sure that applicants are 'job ready' before applying for jobs at the centre.
Highcross itself covers a 10-hectare site, the equivalent of 20 football pitches, encompassing the existing Shires shopping centre to become a single vibrant destination of over 100,000 m2. More than 25,000 tonnes of recycled cement was poured into the foundations of new mall and residential buildings - the equivalent weight of 108 blue whales, lovers of inane statistics might be interested to know. The centre is anchored by three department stores: Debenhams, House of Fraser and John Lewis, which is opening its biggest department store outside London at 22,000 sq metres over four levels.
There's an impressive fashion line-up which includes the likes of Hobbs, All Saints, Zara, Reiss, Next, G-Star, Henleys, Lacoste and Cruise. In addition, Hugo Boss, Ghost, Top Shop and Top Man will also be making an appearance, as well as Apple, which is making its city centre debut at Highcross. Centred around two specially created public squares - St Peters Square and Grammar School Court, the restaurant quarter will provide a new focus for casual eating and fine dining at the heart of Highcross, housing the likes of YO! Sushi, Wagamama, Canas y Tapas, Carluccio's, Nandos, Real China and Handmade Burger Company.
But rather than swallow up the existing character and commercial offering of Leicester, Highcross has been designed so that businesses on the major city streets, the 'lanes' and the city's well-established covered market for example will be complemented by the new development. "When combined with the new retail brands, all areas of the city are likely to see a resurgence in fortune as the new businesses within Highcross attract new shoppers to the city for the first time", adds Karl Boyce. Indeed, from its inception it seems that the project was characterised by a determination to make it 'distinctively Leicester', to work with the city and its inhabitants rather than to impose a pre-ordained vision. There was extensive consultation organised by Hammerson and Chapman Taylor Architects, including exhibitions and workshops prior to and following the submission of the planning application. The developers and city planners continued to keep stakeholders, residents and retailers up to date with their progress. "Through this process", says Karl, "it is hoped the public's views have shaped the final outcome of Highcross, so that it will be a destination that the city can be truly proud of. The iconic John Lewis building, for example, uses a hosiery pattern design reflective of the city's rich textile history."
The developers of Highcross are at pains to insist that it is about much more than just shopping - it's about creating new jobs, a new environment and a new buzz for Leicester, it's "about creating a new energy in the heart of the city, and a new spirit of excitement". Nevertheless you've got to figure that for the 4.8 million people living within an hour's drive of the new centre the hugely enhanced retail and leisure offering is what will be drawing them in like moths to a flame.