This month, Chester Association of Property Professional’s article is written by member Tom Creer, Associate Director at Legat Owen.
The city of Chester during the 1980’s and 1990’s was a permanent fixture in the top 5 performing retail centres in the UK. The city punched well above its weight with large crowds of shoppers visiting the city at weekends and particularly at Christmas.
Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a steady decline in the retailing fortunes of Chester, compounded by the convenience of Cheshire Oaks Outlet Village and Broughton Retail Park which have undoubtedly drawn visitors and shoppers away from the city. The failure by Scottish Widows, and latterly ING Real Estate, in their attempts to redevelop a large area of the City Centre led to the closure of the Gateway Theatre and decline of the Forum Shopping Centre and market. Economic shocks such as the global pandemic and 2008 credit crunch combined with the move to online retailing have further compounded the decline. The result has been a high number of void retail units throughout the City.
In recent years, green shoots have appeared and we are undoubtedly seeing the renaissance of Chester City Centre as not only a retail destination, but also its evolution into a leisure and night-time economy.
In my opinion, the start of this revival can be pinpointed to Cheshire West and Chester Council taking control of the Northgate Development assets and the opening of the Storyhouse in May 2017. Storyhouse has been a huge success, delivering a large mixed-use cultural building providing theatre space, library, cinema and café.
More recently, the new market which has been delivered by the Local Authority provides a reimagined modern contemporary market space providing a hybrid of food hall and traditional market stalls. Other smaller empty retail units, particularly in Northgate and Watergate Streets have in a large part been occupied by cafes, bars and restaurants, most of which are successful local independents serving a variety of high quality food and beverage offerings.
The Picturehouse cinema, opened last Friday by the Lord Mayor of Chester, is a six-screen cinema which provides further reasons for visitors to come to the city both day and night, seven days a week. The vacant retail units at the front of the now closed Forum Shopping Centre have been let and all of these elements lead to a city that has repaired and reinvented itself.
There are still some areas of concern including the currently vacant Wilkinsons on Foregate Street, the former British Home Stores premises which has now been empty for nearly 7 years, and significant voids in the Grosvenor Shopping precinct including Debenhams (Browns of Chester). The Grosvenor Precinct and Browns have been acquired by an Irish developer, along with the freehold, and it is the first time that these three elements have been brought together coherently, so one can only have hope that a solution to this enormous void can now be found.
Chester is a wonderful, picturesque city to live and work in and there are now many reasons to spend more time shopping. This is therefore not necessarily a retail renaissance but a city renaissance.