Solihull town centre is set for its biggest redevelopment in a generation after Mell Square changed hands for £44 million.
Lord Edmiston’s IM Properties group has bought the square – which accounts for about half of the town centre.
And the Post can exclusively reveal it plans to develop retail, leisure and public spaces, as well as add more residential properties.
While detailed proposals are still being drawn up – the sale was completed less than three weeks ago – the firm plans to develop zones for leisure, home, fashion, value and family retailers.
The area, which has been barely redeveloped since it was built in the 1960s, takes in 630,000 sq ft, with 87 retailers and 57 apartments.
Coleshill-based IM, which bought the site from Aviva, has extensive plans, including investing in the night time and leisure economy.
It said restaurants like Carluccio’s and Jamie’s Italian, Jamie Oliver’s chain, were keen to move to the town.
IM Properties managing director Tim Wooldridge said he hoped new homes would be built in the town within five years.
Traders are yet to be informed of the deal, but Mr Wooldridge said he was confident retailers would be pleased to see work to drive the town centre forward.
“If they can see an appetite to push things forward, they will engage with us,” he said.
IM Properties concluded the takeover of Mell Square, which boasts the likes of Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Boots, Argos and TK Maxx, on July 8.
It was built by Aviva in 1967 and has a pay-and-display car park with 250 spaces.
But it has suffered from under-investment amid tough trading conditions in recent years.
IM Properties’ UK investment director John Hammond said the scheme complemented work around the M42 corridor, Birmingham Airport, the proposed HS2 terminal and plans for the mixed-use UK Central scheme nearby, which were exclusively revealed in the Post last month.
He said the project would complement Solihull’s Touchwood centre, which has come to dominate the town centre.
“Touchwood is fantastic and John Lewis is a major plus for the town,” Mr Hammond said.
“But a finite number of tenants want to be in a shopping centre and the council would like there to be an open air scheme.
“In the past, Aviva drew up a number of plans for Mell Square, but for one reason or another they didn’t come off.
“The council held back on capital expenditure for the amenities until redevelopment took place, but we will work with them to improve the public realm.”
IM is looking at the north and south ends of Drury Lane for potential residential development, and to increase the height of current apartments.
It is also keen to establish a brand for key zones across the town.
There are currently clusters of fashion stores around Drury Lane, value stores on Poplar Way around Marks & Spencer and furnishings stores on Mill Lane.
The firm believes these areas could be expanded and marketed better.
But improvements to public areas need to be made first – and work to improve Poplar Way and Drury Lane could begin as soon as next year.
But, with Solihull Council owning a long leasehold over the area and taking a proportion of income, IM will have to work closely with the authority.
Mr Wooldridge said: “The relationship with the council is important. If we are going to invest money of this magnitude, it is important the council’s ambitions are aligned with ours.
“And we see their ambitions are similar to ours.”
Mr Hammond said he would like to see a Brindleyplace-style square created in the heart of the development, where a Costa Coffee cafe now sits.
“At the moment it is a pretty old building that blocks sight lines,” Mr Hammond said. “There is scope to create a square like Brindleyplace, where there is a glass-fronted Costa Coffee in the middle.”
Gap analysis – the comparison of actual performance with potential performance – on the town centre showed a host of retailers and leisure firms would move to the centre with a change of environment.
Mr Wooldridge said some niche retailers were currently being lost to places like Leamington Spa.
And he said it was vital to boost the evening economy, by establishing a zone for restaurants and bars.
“A town centre like Solihull shouldn’t be a ghost town at 8pm – there should be more leisure accommodated,” he said.
One potential plan could be to pedestrianise the south of Drury Lane – currently used for disabled access – if alternative access could be found. That would enable al fresco dining along the street.
Mr Hammond added: “It is amazing the amount of leisure occupiers, the same as retail, who want to come, but it is about the environment.
“Jamie’s Italian and Carluccio’s are desperate to get into Solihull but they have to find somewhere they would go. They don’t want to be in a shopping centre next to a cinema.
“It is all about creating an environment – if we can do that they will come.”
The investment marks a return to the retail sector for IM, which has has a £500 million portfolio with another £300 million under management.
The firm, which counts motor trade entrepreneur and philanthropist Lord Bob Edmiston as its chairman, previously owned shopping centres in the south but backed away from the sector in recent years.
The investment cames weeks after the Post revealed a £50 million investment in the Mailbox in Birmingham city centre.
Mr Hammond added: “The demand is absolutely there and, if we can improve places like Mill Lane and Drury Lane, a lot will be unlocked.
“A lot of people want to be in the scheme. With some proper investment working with the council, we can improve it to that end.
“In the medium to long term, with the council, we want to increase the density and bring in more residential.”