Placemaking – if you build it, they will come

Roger Wade – CEO and Founder of BOXPARK
This month’s Wise Owl contributor
Roger Wade is a creative entrepreneur who began his career by creating British street fashion brand Boxfresh, which he grew from a market stall to an international brand. Having sold Boxfresh, Roger created his own brand consultancy before turning his retail flair to ‘placemaking’ with Boxpark. He is passionate about Independent brands and the future of retail.

Placemaking – if you build it, they will come

The terms ‘placemaking’ and ‘meanwhile development’ are currently two of the most overused phrases in the world of urban regeneration. It frustrates me to see so many developers out there quoting themselves as being great at placemaking when really they’re just pandering to the needs of the local council who want to believe that these companies are going to come along, prop up some new buildings against a public square and instantly create a vibrant community from a derelict space. It just doesn’t work like that. [pull_quote]First you build somewhere people want to go and hang out and then you have to manage it, nurture it and evolve it, 365 days a year and with a commitment to still be at it five or ten years hence.[/pull_quote]

There are however, some great exponents of the art of placemaking. I’m a massive admirer of the likes of David Partridge at Argent and Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash for example. They are showing other developers what real placemaking is about. That simply building flats and offices isn’t enough to kick start urban regeneration. They get that first you have to create a place where people will want to come and live, work and play.

A superb and in my view anyway, the best example of great placemaking in Britain is what Argent have done at Kings Cross. They approached the project from day one on the basis that they were building a community not a disparate collection of flats and offices in the hope that people would move in. It was the subtlety of how they approached their art that makes it outstanding. They pulled a masterstroke bringing in Central Saint Martin’s art college and then they focused on building up the retail and food beverage components with an artisanal feel rather than the same old names you’ll find up and down Euston Road. They created a space around Granary Square with facilities and services which would make people want to spend time there, to live and work there. It was really only after they had created that vibrant heart for the new community that the big guns like Google and Universal wanted to get involved by taking office space. David and Tom understand that the role of placemaking in urban regeneration is to create consumer need and special places and not just to think about flogging offices and flats.

It’s this similar desire to create exciting, vibrant areas that’s behind what we do at Boxpark Our development partners, Schroders and Stanhope in Boxpark Croydon, understand what’s required and how doing it properly makes all the difference. They want to work with credible people who have been successful at reinvigorating a community, like we have at Boxpark Shoreditch and now are doing so at Boxpark Croydon. The play is essentially a simple one. We get Boxpark into an area with potential, we stimulate interest by creating a vibrant social space and from there attract new commercial and residential tenants. Using Croydon as an example, Schroders owned that piece of land for a round 20 years. It’s adjacent to one of the busiest train stations in the country with around 27 million user visits a year and more than 500,000 commuters getting on and off trains at East Croydon station every week, and that’s without the bus and tram connections. However, despite all that traffic Schroders didn’t get a piece of commercial development away in 20 years. Then, within 12 months of Boxpark announcing we were heading to Croydon they secured a 184,000 square ft office development to create HMRC’s first regional centre on a 25-year lease and at record rents. They’re now looking to build out their second and third commercial phases. In addition, there’s a development of 161 apartments by Vita called Ruskin Square which is pretty much sold out. The feedback we’re getting from Schroders and others is that one of the major drivers in attracting commercial tenants and interest from residential developers is Boxpark because now there’s a cool place to eat, drink and socialise in Croydon.

We are in the process of bringing that same experience to Wembley where we’re working with Quintain on their huge, 40-acre development which encompasses probably the largest single build of new PRS homes in the country. Quintain recognise that it’s not just about the stadium or the arena but about building up the whole community, revitalising the area with great leisure and retail spaces to draw people in.

[pull_quote]So, when you’re looking for outstanding examples of placemaking you should look at Argent in Kings Cross, at Urban Splash at New Piccadilly in Manchester and Parkhill in Sheffield. These guys know what they’re doing and we take inspiration from their work and give it our own twist with our Boxpark projects.[/pull_quote]

The Boxpark ethos is based on my firm belief that people want to feel special and that’s not something the retail and F&B giants are all that good at delivering. Over the last 20 years the high streets of Britain have become the same high street from town to town. The independents, which are great at providing more personal experiences, have been all but wiped out. At Boxpark we decided that we could provide a home for these esoteric and interesting businesses and my gut feel was that we were about to see an explosion of independents not just in retail but in areas such as street food and that became our focus. We listen to what’s going on at street level, we talk to people, we constantly re-evaluate our business and we evolve until we get it right. Then we just roll with it.

For example, at Boxpark Shoreditch tenants are about 75% independent retailers, 25% independent food whilst at Boxpark Croydon we’re 100% independent street food and beverage. We didn’t have a central events space in Shoreditch, but we built one in Croydon tying all the F&B together. Our ethos now is that Boxpark is a place to eat, drink and play. We’re providing the special experiences that the internet can’t do. We’re saying come and join in, come and socialise. Don’t let your only interaction outside of work be with the Deliveroo guy.

Boxpark Wembley will be different again. It’s our first fully enclosed development. We’re aiming to be a major event partner for Wembley Stadium and Wembley Arena. A fan zone for people visiting the stadium and the arena for sport and music events, bringing the whole experience of visiting Wembley to another level. We love bringing people something different and we’re talking to lots of exciting businesses about joining us at Boxpark Wembley and the several other potential sites we’re currently looking at around the country.

Real placemaking works brilliantly if it is properly planned from the outset then nurtured and carefully managed once up and running. It isn’t a pop-up café on a wasteland. The key is to create exciting, special places, attracting people to the area and showing them what a great place it is to live, work and play. By building a social hub packed with interesting, independent food, retail and entertainment you create a magnet which initially attracts people then employers looking to locate themselves in amongst the action and house builders wishing to sell or rent them somewhere to live. [pull_quote]If you build it, they will come. But if you build it properly, they will stay.[/pull_quote]