To Revive a Dying Main Street, One British Landlord Offered Free Rent

Steven Wyatt spent 20 years on and off drug addiction and rehab. In 2006, while working at his recovery center, he learned how to restore furniture, a skill that led him to run his own shop in an unlikely location: the coastal town of Poole in southwest England. I led.

Wyatt, 46, is one of the few beneficiaries of an extraordinary experiment in real estate and urban renewal. His store, Restored Retro, is one of ten vacant stores in Poole’s small shopping district called Kingland Crescent that have been given two years of free rent.

The offer comes from the property’s owner, the UK’s largest asset manager, Legal & General Investment Management, which has decided to invest in shopping malls as the economy remains volatile due to the pandemic. He struggled to revitalize the adjacent shopping district, which was almost abandoned.

“It’s been a tough learning curve for them and for us,” Wyatt said. “This is the first time I have taken on such a big responsibility.”

The rent-free period, which ended in April, has not only changed the lives of Wyatt and several other small business owners, it has also transformed the street, now a busy area. Avoided by many locals. Even the adjacent shopping mall bucks national trends and is now attracting more visitors than it did in 2019.

Half of the original 10 businesses that provided space at Kingland Crescent are still there, and those that left were quickly replaced by new local businesses ready to pay rent. There is a sense that the pool transformation is gaining momentum.

“Pools are becoming a destination again,” Wyatt said.

Poole is just a few miles away from some of the country’s most expensive coastal properties, but the town center remained in a rut. Malls were filled with dark, empty spaces, parts of the city’s big shopping districts were haunted by the past, and the more lively areas housed old, long-forgotten brands.

The rebuilding of Kingland Crescent began during the pandemic lockdown as the British mourned the death of a beloved high street that rivaled America’s main street. Their survival is a top priority for the government, which has announced billions of dollars in subsidies to revitalize them.

But recently, the government has been hit by other crises, including the highest inflation rate in 40 years, soaring food prices and soaring mortgage repayments, resulting in a severe cost of living crisis.

“The UK retail industry has been in trouble for a long time,” said Anthony Breach, senior analyst at the Center for Cities think tank. Even before the pandemic, “there was an oversupply of retail space, especially in areas where the economy was less successful.”

Major transformations were needed for many downtown areas to survive the shift away from in-store shopping by the major national retail chains that dominated them, he added.

There are encouraging signs of progress. Fewer stores closed in the UK last year than in the previous year, and some vacant department stores have been given new life as leisure centers with go-karts and planned housing. Pedestrian traffic on major thoroughfares across the country in June increased by about 5% compared to last year, but remains below pre-pandemic levels.

“There are boulevards that are being destroyed,” says Mark Robinson, chairman of the Boulevard Task Force, a government-created group. “Similarly, there are areas that are going to get worse from here. increase.”

Downtowns across the country face different fates. Things have improved for the pool after Legal & General Investment Management, which owns around £36 billion ($43 billion) of homes, retail stores, offices and other property, took risks. Other smaller boulevards benefit from residents staying close to home for work and socializing.

But many other areas, especially large towns and cities, are still devastated by empty department stores and closed national brand hubs.

The difference is evident in Bournemouth, a large town with a large student population a few miles east of Poole. Economic prosperity varies greatly by region, but official figures for 2022 show that median incomes in Bournemouth, Poole and the surrounding towns were about 7 percent below the national average.

Three department stores have closed in Bournemouth, and the exit of major retail chains has left some streets vacant. Two years ago, the town had an ambitious plan to fill the empty space, but it was slow to materialize. A major success is the re-opening of the former Devenhams department store as Bobby’s, which includes a beauty hall, cafe and stalls for local businesses.

Four other large sites — two former department stores and two movie theaters — are in the early stages of redevelopment, according to Paul Kinvig, who manages the town’s business improvement district.

“I’m encouraged by the fact that they all have plans, but there’s a pacing issue,” he said.

Progress is slow in Bournemouth, but Kingland Crescent is home to independent businesses in Poole. The refurbishment modernized it with an Instagram-friendly botanical store, a coffee shop with a roastery in the back, a gin bar, and more. And free rent allowed them to grow rapidly.

For landlords, the program was a long-term bet. Matt Sophia, head of retail research at Regal, said offering free rent, even to entrepreneurs with no formal business experience, will make the company’s real estate more resilient to the ever-changing economy, making it a nationally-scaled conglomerate. He said it was part of a strategy to reduce reliance on retailers. and general investment management.

“We’re not just doing this to do pool people good,” he added. “We are doing this because we believe all these initiatives will generate cash flow in the long term.”

Before moving to Kingland Crescent, Mr. Wyatt’s furniture restoration business was a small business. Occasionally, he painted furniture in his garden and sold the work on his eBay.

Since opening the shop, he has sold over 1000 items. He specializes in restoring mid-century items such as sideboards by Danish designer Yves Kofford Larsen and dressing tables by British design firm Archie Shine. In March, when rent payments began, Wyatt teamed up with BBC series The Repair Shop star Jay Blaze to take over the empty space next door, doubling the size of the store.

Three doors down from Wyatt is Wild Roots, a plant store run by 29-year-old Hope Dean, who was laid off from her event management job early in the pandemic. A few months later she secured a space at Kingland Her Crescent. It is now a lush haven of peace and tranquility. Her employees are her six and her company has her three branches: retail, corporate plant design services, and plant management services.

“Now it feels like a proper business,” says Dean.

A swanky record store with live music nights, a jewelry store with pieces delicately carved out of titanium, and a previously online-only clothing store have recently joined the lineup. Some said they each had to pay rent, but still earned a good income.

Changes in Kingland Crescent have also flowed into the adjacent shopping center, also owned by Regal and General. On the upper floors of the run-down mall, the landlord set up a diagnostic center, an adult education center, and a co-working space run by the National Health Service. Market stalls open several days a week on the ground floor, and there are also spaces that offer free events and services such as daycares, craft fairs and historical exhibits.

However, Kingland Crescent’s tenants still face challenges. Their lease is due for renewal in about a year, so their future is uncertain. Unpredictable foot traffic and little other nightlife are a problem for the bar, Tennants said.

“Pool was our pilot,” said Denizer Ibrahim, head of retail strategy at Legal & General. After two years of data collection, the landlord is wondering what worked and could be replicated elsewhere. However, there are no plans to offer free rent again.

According to Ibrahim, the strategy is to do away with the “conventional” boulevards that were the norm a few years ago and replace them with spaces for a diverse mix of global and local businesses in retail and other services sectors. It is said that it is to be carefully selected.

Such a use of retail space “would never have been talked about without Kingland,” he says.

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