Opportunities and challenges in repurposing retail parks, 20 January 2020

Retail parks going back to the future?

Retail parks could now start moving back towards their original conception of a multi-use format, as first intended by their original US designer Victor Gruen, suggested Olivia Paine of HLM Architects.  She was speaking at the second of three SPR webinars on repurposing retail property.  

Today UK retail parks are ‘one size fits all’, she proposed, existing as their own commercial bubbles with their visitors arriving in their own motorised bubbles.  Making retail parks work better in the future will mean breaking down this car-dependence and providing stronger links to other transport infrastructure and the urban centres that they support.  

At present retail parks are often left out of urban plans and are almost treated as dead space.  Revitalised retail parks could include elements of residential and co-working spaces as well as more services like healthcare and vets.  But this would mean big design changes to make these attractive locations rather than car park-dominated developments.

Jonathan Bayfield of Aviva Investors suggested that with the inroads now being made into retailing by e-commerce, signs of a positive reaction are already visible in some more forward-looking retail parks.  For instance, the Aviva-managed park in London’s Old Kent Road includes more service-oriented units like Halfords and Pets at Home, which has a veterinary element.  Aviva have also received planning permission to build 1000 flats on the site.  

Bayfield earlier described how Next are evolving their approach to using retail parks by having bespoke designed units and attractive landscaping that give them more of a unique presence, moving away from the monotonous one-size-fits-all concept described by Paine.

As we’ve moved in and out of COVID-related lockdown conditions, retail parks have not been performing so badly, at least compared to their high street and shopping centre counterparts, argued David Ebbrell of M7 real Estate, although he agreed with Bayfield that there is a growing premium for customer experience and convenience. Nevertheless, as pricing converges with that for other land uses, alternative sectors like residential and logistics may prove increasingly attractive in these locations.  Indeed, retail warehouses can in many cases be easily converted to logistics warehouses.

In the audience Q&A led by Cleo Folkes of Property Overview, Bayfield proposed that the best locations for retail park investment are either in London and the South East, where there is likely to be the biggest demand for alternative uses, or in places that have an extensive and prosperous catchment.  Meanwhile Paine proposed that to be open to repurposing most effectively, parks need to have a location that is relatively accessible to existing urban settlements rather than isolated on the wrong side of distant ring roads.

Tim Horsey