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Oxford Street has always brought in the crowds – and often for less savoury reasons

than shopping. With the massive Crossrail development rejuvenating its eastern end, what does the future hold for Europe’s busiest high street? Piers Wehner reports

standards. There have been numerous attempts to make it a bigger version of its luxurious neighbour Bond Street – most recently with the Land Securities- developed Park House, which was bought by a subsidiary of the Qatari national bank in 2010. “They wanted to go very high-end

luxury, which was a natural choice as Oxford Street is a known address for a luxury brand,” says one adviser. “But the problem is there is already Selfridges and there is Bond Street.” Smith argues that while Selfridges

does raise the tone of the street, it also “pins it back”. “What the Park House experiment has

shown is that Oxford Street is the super- high street, not the luxury quarter.” But you are not going to find premium

international brands that you’ve never seen before. “We have other streets that do that,” says Smith. “What Oxford Street has is the best examples of the familiar top shops. You don’t have to make it more upmarket. “It is the nation’s high street. It is about getting the best-in-class high street multiples – the value-to-middle players.”

And the “bits of tat” shops? They infest

Oxford Street like a pox, but Smith says they are a necessary evil. “We have a couple of big stores where we need a meanwhile use, and these guys are really good at trading those locations – and they pay big rent. “For me, I don’t like them, it’s not what

retailing is about – increasingly retail is about the experience. But if you asked a coachload of kids from France, that’s what they want. “I think they will be driven out, but that will be the landlord, because they don’t want to cheapen the image.” The identity of Oxford Street, in

essence, is its scale. “It is critical mass – big shops, big offer,” says Smith. “I can go to a massive Hennes, then walk 30 seconds to a massive Zara. Critical mass, all on the doorstep. If you are putting a flagship store on Oxford Street and you don’t make it something special, then you are doing something wrong.” Critics of the street argue that this

is not an identity, but a symptom of a systemic failure. “Look at Regent Street and compare the difference,” says CBRE’s head of London planning, Stuart

Robinson, a man in part responsible for transforming Regent Street from the Cardigan Corridor to the Mile of Style. Smith is dismissive: “We don’t want another repetition of Regent’s Street, that would be idiotic. Bond Street is Bond Street. Covent Garden is Covent Garden.” But the chief difference, Robinson

argues, is ownership. Regent Street is owned in its entirety by the Crown Estate, while Oxford Street’s owners number over a hundred. “Regent Street has been managed very comprehensively since Roger Bright took over as CE.” Since then the team has initiated

“a whole load of strategies”, wooing brands such as Apple and redeveloping the portfolio. “The pièce de résistance was the Quadrant in the southern end,” says Robinson. Does he sound a little groggy? The

night before we speak the last part of the Quadrant had won planning consent. “Oxford Street having mixed ownership

has meant that this is much more difficult. It cannot be dynamic. The best improvement has been the Diagonal (a New York-style crossing at Oxford Circus) and that was funded by Regent Street!”

At a glance

✹ Oxford Street’s modern tone was set when Selfridges opened in 1908 ✹ Estimates for Oxford Street’s annual footfall is 200m; Regent Street is 90m ✹ Oxford Street has six giant department stores, plus a score of flagships ✹ Crossrail is expected to increase footfall by 36%, or 200,000 people daily

Summer 2013 17


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