An article written by Ashley Armstrong, Retail Editor at The Times on 3 June 2021
A Liverpool shopping centre may have a model that other retail sites can follow
Teenage buskers might be a feature on high streets and shopping centres, but what if fame-hungry performers outnumber the customers? It can seem that way in Liverpool’s Metquarter, but far from symbolising the decline of a bricks-and-mortar retail site out of tune with the modern consumer, the next generation of next big things are being seen a welcome burst of energy.
In a transformation of the Metquarter, shops have been turned into rehearsal studios, giving passers by the chance by watch students performing Les Miserables, Hamilton and more as they are put through their paces at LMA Liverpool’s performing arts campus.
Bill Addy, chief executive of Liverpool BID Company, a non-profit organisation for business improvement, said:
“The Metquarter had become a bit quiet and it’s not that now. The students have added some fresh life to the place.”
As such, the new-look Metquarter reflects the view of Richard Hyman, an independent retail expert:
“What has happened during the pandemic is that needs-based retail has moved massively online, so physical retailing has to be entertaining, it has to be fun, different and become a leisure activity again.”
The centre certainly needed a change in mood music. Described by locals as a “white elephant” as it struggled to fill a growing number of vacant shops, in the 14 years since Liverpool’s former blitz-bombed Post Office was turned into a shopping centre, it has been through four owners. Milligan, the original developer, reopened the Metquarter in 2006 and, after an initially successful launch, sold it 18 months later to Anglo Irish Bank in 2007. After the financial crisis, it was offloaded to a division of Schroders, the investment bank, before Queensberry, a developer, took it on in 2016.
Amid the wider regeneration of Merseyside, the Metquarter had been left behind, notably by the rival £1 billion Liverpool One shopping development a few minutes’ walk away, which opened its doors in 2008. Where once the Metquarter had been the destination for upmarket fashion brands, now it was the poor relation.
When Queensberry took over the centre, Paul Sargent, its chief executive, had already acknowledged that there was too much retail space and was working on providing more leisure options. The pandemic’s acceleration of online shopping sharpened his views and brought into focus the need for alternatives, particularly when restaurants were closed.
According to Jennina O’Neill, centre manager at the Metquarter and chairwoman of Liverpool’s retail and leisure BID:
“Even before Covid-19, the space was a challenge to let. We had been thinking that it needed to be mixed use, but the pandemic accelerated that.”
The centre, which originally had about forty retail fashion tenants, had only eight retailers on site by the time a deal was struck last year to transform a floor into a 50,000 sq ft performing arts campus for LMA Liverpool in a £15 million project. LMA counts Robbie Williams, the singer, as a backer.
Lockdowns meant that the music academy could plough ahead with its transformation of the retail space in record time. While the shopping centre was closed, construction work took place on a 24-hour basis, so it was ready to open three months early when term began in September last year. Richard Wallace, its chief executive, envisaged giving all the shops glass walls so that students could watch each other perform, see classes taking place and foster contacts. While it might be unnerving to be watched by strangers casually sipping a coffee, Wallace reckons there’s no better stage: “Our students just love an audience.” More than 500 students use the building every day and can screen film projects at the centre’s Everyman cinema, as well as use a discount card in shops that include Costa, Hugo Boss, Cricket and Kids Cavern.
Danny Shelvey, who co-owns Kids Cavern, a seller of children’s designer clothing, understood the reasons behind Queensberry’s move after it had struggled to fill empty space: “It’s not the ideal situation for us because students aren’t our customer base and we’re the anchor tenant, but I can totally see it from the landlord perspective. It looks good aesthetically, but having a load of recent school-leavers in the centre has its own challenges, too.”
The redevelopment has included a new food hall in the Metquarter, with restaurant operators including Thai 25 and Restaurant Konjo — a selection helped by Queensberry using the students as a sounding board for what they wanted and offering them first chance on front-of-house jobs.
The collaboration with LMA Liverpool is unlikely to be a one-hit wonder. Developers have contacted the music academy about more opportunities and before picking the Metquarter LMA had been in discussions with another retail site. Wallace said that underperforming shopping centre assets were attractive because they had enough space to house hundreds of students and were served by good transport links.
One of the main blocks to such an adventurous reinvention of shopping centre space is that for decades the retail sector has been a cash cow, often paying significantly higher rents for sites than commercial offices or housing. Sargent reckons that in addition to rents falling and landlords becoming more realistic, the transfer of many provincial shopping centres into local council ownership means that the centres will take longer-term views.
That should help what has been a long-term problem. There was an estimated 25 per cent of oversupply of retail space even before the coronavirus pandemic emerged in Britain early last year, according to JLL, the property agency. However, industry experts believe that the empty space created by big retail closures will be replaced by other options.
Paul Sargent, chief executive of Queensberry commented:
“Empty shops won’t be replaced by one purpose, there will be a multitude of uses that better reflect what a community needs.”
Wallace believes that there is a benefit to putting education establishments in shopping centres, rather than merely more shops, which attract people mainly at weekends. “Centres need to be there for the community throughout the week,” he argued. “Education or football pitches for schoolchildren make these places where people come throughout the week and bring their friends and family.”
Whether that means more Fame-style music and drama academies bringing an echo of 1980s’ Hollywood movie to an unloved shopping centre near you remains to be seen, but if the Metquarter’s experiment with the performing arts is a success, people really will remember its name.