Retail heaven beckons for Birmingham with an extra 1.2 million sq ft of shops.
David Faers reports on the run-up to the opening of the Bullring.
The final countdown has started, and there's no doubt that all eyes will be on September's big blast-off - the opening of the #500 million Bullring scheme, with some 1.2 million sq ft of retail space, and a transformation that is being heralded as the solution to the city's retail shortcomings.
Birmingham will now be able to flex its muscle as the UK's second city and halt the exodus of shoppers to other towns and cities. It will turn Birmingham into a retail destination with a catchment of 4.3 million shoppers and an annual spending power of #4.1 billion.
The Bullring ripple effect is bringing new opportunities for some specialist and niche retailers, but the question on all lips is what effect will it have on retail in the city and the region overall?
Jonathan Ottewell, retail agent at BK Birmingham, predicts that the traditional retail heart of the city will not be effected a great deal.
Flagship stores such as Rackhams and Marks and Spencer will be unlikely to move as the stores are destinations in themselves, an example of the brand being stronger than the location.
Others will move around, drawn into the Bullring by the focus created by new retail heavyweight entrants to the city such as Selfridges.
At the last count,17 new retailers had signed up for Bullring units over the last month, increasing the amount of floor space let by a further 67,600 sq ft.
Taken together with the 20 retailers to have exchanged contracts in the first quarter of the year, accounting for some 74,300 sq ft of space, Bullring is close to reaching its 100th retailer signing.
Latest lettings on Street 7, Bullring's high fashion and lifestyle pitch on the scheme's upper level close to Selfridges, now include Nike, Lacoste, Miss Sixty, Karen Millen and Swarovski.
Bullring's lower level, the scheme's focus for high street fashion multiples, has attracted another seven retailers, including New Look, Pilot, Quiz, and Foxhole, while on the middle level, Mango has signed up to open its first Birmingham-based standalone flagship store.
According to Mr Ottewell, the movement of already-established retailers will free up space at the edges of the traditional retail core for smaller niche brands, creating a vibrant and well-balanced retail sector for the city and making it one of the country's few city centre retail and leisure destinations, appealing to shoppers and retailers alike.
Mr Ottewell says: "The relocation of existing occupiers to the Bullring is releasing space on to the market. Newcomers to these prime sites will benefit from the footfall generated by their proximity to the Bullring development. They will also benefit from having flagships stores and recognised household names - the anchor stores - at the end of their street.
"The opening of the Bullring will also re-establish the link between the markets area and the city centre. The markets are a traditional part of the retail scene in the city and add another dimension to the Birmingham retail experience."
The retail property expert is in no doubt that the success of Birmingham as a retail destination will hinge its accessibility to potential visitors.
The Bullring will add 3,000 new parking spaces to existing city centre capacity and when the development opens many of the off-putting road-works in the city centre will be nearing completion, so access to the centre for drivers should be reasonable. It is also likely that the number of bus journeys into the city centre will increase.
The picture for those wishing to gain access to the city by train is less rosy, according to Mr Ottwell.
"Refurbished Moor St Station is intended to act as a new gateway to the city centre and, although the refurbishment of the station is on schedule, it is unlikely to open on time due to signalling problems on the line," he says.
"This will mean that the majority of rail travellers will still be arriving in the city via the uninspiring New Street terminus, which already suffers severe overcrowding problems at peak times."
The Bullring development is also likely to have a marked effect on other retail centres in the region, according to Mr Ottewell.
"Centres such as Touchwood Court in Solihull, which offers a very different atmosphere and caters to a very different demographic group, will undoubtedly continue to thrive," he says.
"However, as the revitalised city centre draws in more shoppers from the region, there may be a question mark over proposed new regional developments. The power of the Bullring to draw in shoppers may mean that these proposed new developments prove to be unsustainable.
"It will be many years before the full effect of the Bullring redevelopment on the city centre and the region as a whole is understood. One thing is clear - that the Bullring ripple effect will give food for thought to retailers large and small across the region."
The man heading up the Bullring project on behalf of the Birmingham Alliance, Hammerson director Jon Emery, is in little doubt about the wider implications of the giant retail development.
He reafffirms the view that the scheme is a key part of Birmingham's renaissance and sees the partnership approach as a masterplan for other schemes.
"Over the past ten to 15 years, the city of Birmingham has made great strides in reinventing itself. Imaginative canalside regeneration and investment in entertainment and conference venues have created a momentum for a new environment and a return to city centre living," he says.
"Much as these developments have taken the city forward, Birmingham's city centre rejuvenation will only be complete with the opening of the new Bullring - the most ambitious change currently under way and the largest retail regeneration scheme in Europe.
"The importance of a strong retail offer to successful urban regeneration should not be underestimated - without the shops and catering, inner-city living does not work.
"Professionals moving back into the heart of a city expect and demand a full lifestyle mix with health clubs, restaurants and entertainment on their doorstep. A high-quality shopping offer is a core ingredient of the package.
"On the other side of the coin, city attractions and venues can - and should - play an equally important role in the success of city retailing. Shopping has increasingly become a pleasure/leisure activity rather than a daily chore or necessity. It now, more than ever before, competes directly with other day-out experiences for consumers' time."
He points to a report by retail analysts Verdict showing that retailers' share of customer spending dropped by ten per cent in the past decade.
"Any development and its retailers need to positively address this competition. Longer opening hours, increased consumer services and the introduction of other uses are all increasingly important in attracting potential consumers and will be part of the Bullring offer," he says.
"By working in partnership with other attractions, venues and experiences within a city, retail developments can minimise the risk and capitalise on the leisure market, selling the city as a whole and providing a much better offer to the consumer than out-of-town retail developments.
"To take this one stage further, I believe that the straightforward, much-copied and highly-profitable out-of-town shopping factory is no longer acceptable."
"One must now turn to the attractions of mixed-use development. With their associated variety and vitality, the long-established best shire and market towns in the UK and many European cities are historical precedents which demonstrate that if handled sensitively, city centre mixed-use developments can meet the demands of today's consumers, providing longer-term rewards.
"These developments do not need to be at odds with the long-held principles of good shopping mall layout - department stores anchoring malls and streets, clear sight lines and optimum mix of shop types and sizes, including varieties of depth and frontage and the creation of strong pedestrian flows can be built into the design.
"The schemes need to enable the creation of strong building blocks on which an urban shopping centre can develop successfully. With Bullring, the retail offer has been deliberately designed as an extension of the existing city core."
As Business Property Review went to press, the centre's interiors were at last close to resembling the much-published computer-generated images circulated by the Bullring's marketing team, with outside public spaces the focus of much construction activity.
With only a matter of weeks before the September opening, MSU store fit-outs are well under way, with Zara, which will be opening a flagship store in the base of the Rotunda building, the latest store to have been handed over. The next milestone will be the handing over of the smaller shop units for fit-out this monthcheck.
Construction activity is now focused on Bullring's outside spaces, with work on feature lighting, street art, planting and the limestone terracing of St Martin's Square all well advanced.
St Martin's Walk, the central pedestrian boulevard which re-establishes the link between New Street and High Street to St Martin's Church and the markets beyond, was being paved.
Opening out into the giant new public piazza of St Martin's Square, the boulevard leads on to the centre-piece of the square - the newly restored 17th century neo-gothic splendour of St Martin's Church. Designed as an extension of the existing city street pattern, St Martin's Walk recreates a magnificent view - not seen for some 40 years - of St Martin's Church from Rotunda Square.
A new route, connecting Smallbrook Queensway and New Street Station with the junction of New Street and High Street, follows round the Rotunda building, along the side of Bullring and the new Debenhams and into Edgbaston Street. When Bullring opens in September, this link will also form part of the new 24-hour route connecting New Street and Moor Street stations.
Progress on the limestone terracing of the curved piazza in St Martin's Square was completed in Junecheck, together with the coloured lights in the uprights of the stairs curving around the piazza's perimeter. Planting along the edge of the stairs, which includes four fully-grown pine trees, is also in place.
Taking shape alongside them are a number of three-dimensional artworks commissioned for Bullring's public spaces. A free-standing light and water sculpture designed by architects Gross Max, is to form a stunning centrepiece in St Martin's Square, and is under construction with each of the art-work's three concrete cubes now in place.
When completed the cubes, which are five, three and two metres high, will each contain a different coloured lightbox surrounded by stacked glass walls, with water flowing over the glass faces into a still slate pool at the base of each cube.
One of the most dramatic installations commissioned for Bullring is a massive bronze bull, more than twice life size and weighing some five tonnes, which will be positioned just off Rotunda Square to create a focal point at the main gateway to the development at the west mall entrance leading to Debenhams.
The sculpture is the work of British sculptor Laurence Broderick, noted for his outstanding ability to capture the vitality and grace of the animal kingdom.
The relocation of existing occupiers to the Bullring is releasing space on to the market. Newcomers to these prime sites will benefit from the footfall generated by their proximity to the Bullring development.