Leeds: Celebrating 20 years at Victoria Quarter

Victoria Quarter this month celebrates 20 years of trading which transformed a rundown part of Leeds into a gleaming mecca for retailing.

Rod McPhee looked at how the scheme also helped revive the economy and put us firmly on the map.

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It would be easy to summarise the fortunes of Victoria Quarter in two words: Harvey Nichols. But that doesn't quite cover it.

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When, in 1996, the upmarket department store opened its first branch outside of London every one of the 90 units inside the centre had already been snapped up.

It was fair to say VQ got off to a faltering start, however. After

several years in planning and construction they had just three new tenants and scraped along the bottom throughout a rather protracted recession in the early 1990s.

It's also fair to say that the arrival of Harvey Nichols did mark a milestone for the development which was first devised by the then owner, Prudential, in the mid-1980s.

But it also marked a milestone for the city, particularly when it was revealed that pro rata, the Leeds branch took more than its London counterpart. Lord Mayor of Leeds Coun Jim McKenna was a member of the planning committee that gave the project the green light.

"We went from being known as The Motorway City by the 1980s to being the Knightsbridge of the North by the 1990s, which was largely down to Harvey Nichols," he says. "But without Victoria Quarter I very much doubt Harvey Nichols would have come here.

"It was such an innovative and unusual scheme and most of us on the committee could see that. There were one or two older members of the panel who were a little more sceptical but in the main most of us could see its huge potential. But most of us could see that we had an opportunity in Leeds to buck the trend that saw the heart of cities ripped away by out-of-town shopping centres like Sheffield's Meadowhall."

When the team behind the project first unveiled the plans it still raised a number of eyebrows. In the 1980s the idea of merging heritage with modernity was still a new concept.

What they proposed was renovating the terracotta exterior of the old County and Cross Arcades while linking them to Queen Victoria Street with a giant steel and glass covering. And they had a certain amount of freedom since the buildings had yet to be listed. But it was still a challenging design since the entrances on Vicar Lane and Briggate were unashamedly contemporary.

Coun Mckenna said: "Despite those concerns we could also see that one of the things that made Leeds special was its arcades and here was a real chance to not just preserve and renovate them but to heighten their appeal.

"And while other cities chose to tear down their old architecture and replace it with modern, concrete building we wanted to preserve some of the beautiful buildings we had and this was a special way of doing that. But it was a radical solution."

Inevitably some observers in Leeds complained about the loss of traditional shops and leisure facilities in favour of what they saw as posh stores. In truth many of the units were in need of major repair and the retail offering was bemusingly random.

On a street which was yet to be pedestrianised lay a butchers on one side, shoe shops on another and inside the County Arcade was the former Mecca nightclub run by Jimmy Savile. By the 1980s the Mecca had been the victim of an extensive fire and the back of it was effectively a tin shed. Meanwhile other shops were riddled with dry rot which required extensive treatment.

The old Empire Theatre on Briggate, which would eventually become Harvey Nichols, had already been stripped of its grandeur. The grand stone frontage and opulent interior was torn down to be replaced by an ugly and unpopular mini-arcade.

John Bade became centre manager at Victoria Quarter two years before it officially opened. Now 61, he came to Leeds at the age of 21 and initially became a window dresser in Schofields on The Headrow – the hub of retailing in Leeds.

Meanwhile Briggate was still a busy thoroughfare for cars and buses and the city centre was divided with VQ and Leeds City Markets seen as being in 'the wrong end of town'.

"Obviously people were a bit sceptical about what we were trying to achieve," recalls Bade. "The idea of bringing boutique shops into this area was something different. We struggled at first but then we started getting retailers here who were the first to open their stores outside of London. "One of the first was Ted Baker and since then of course was Harvey Nichols and several others. And what's important is that the big names like Louis Vuitton, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, might not have come to Leeds at all if it weren't for the presence of Victoria Quarter.

"What's also crucial is that as we've seen a general nationwide boom in retail, more and more places around the UK became clone towns. You know, you can get out of a car anywhere and not be too sure which city you're in. The Victoria Quarter makes Leeds distinctive."

But it isn't merely about good public relations. John Temperley is a retail expert at Leeds Metropolitan University. He believes Victoria Quarter cleverly exploited the changing environment in Leeds.

Firstly, in terms of unemployment which, during the consumer boom of the 1980s, rapidly shifted from traditional industries to service industries.

In Leeds, retail is now the second biggest employer after financial services. Victoria Quarter, and similar schemes attracted by its presence in the city, has helped create jobs in region where the rapid decline of manufacturing and mining initially put hundreds of thousands in the dole queue.

Now 130,000 people work in the city centre. There are around 1,000 retail units which account for spending of around 1.5billion a year – all figures considered unthinkable two decades ago.

Victoria Quarter caught the crest of that wave and exploited the brilliant geography of a city which rests at the heart of a network of roads and railways linking it to dense centres of population. Within a 30 minute drive of the city centre is an estimated 1.9m people and, as Temperley points out, a sizeable proportion of those people have disposable income. Prior to 1990 Leeds city centre didn't offer quite so many places to dispose of it.

"And we know that there are affluent people here willing to part with their money," says Temperley. "For example, John Lewis are very shrewd at looking at parts of the country which order the most products from their mail order service.

"So they know where the highest demand is and for a top-end retailer to plan to come to Leeds, as they now are, shows that there is now a lot of dosh floating around. The people behind Victoria Quarter realised this quite early on and the success of the scheme has proved their belief right. And it is far better for a city to have rich people spending their money there, rather than go somewhere else."

Temperley maintains VQ offers a unique shopping experience which few cities, other than London, can offer. He insists it's the deal breaker which will make someone choose Leeds over another destination which may well be the same distance away, if not closer.

He also knows that the key to a truly successful city centre is offering as broad a spectrum of retail opportunities as possible, that it's vital that budget and mid-market stores are complemented by the likes of Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood and Louis Vuitton.

But VQ has also nurtured and benefited from a changing cultural phenomenon of the last 20 years – the youth of today.

Temperley says: "There is a greater proportion of young people today with more money, or at least more willing to spend their money in different ways. Leeds in particular has a large student population with a constant source of income and there are many more young professionals here today.

"Plus, while they may not demand high end fashion constantly, they do want the more mid-market names like Reiss and All Saints, which can also be found inside VQ. And at the same time they're much more open minded about going and spending a few quid on a pair of jeans from Primark then going off and spending quite a lot on a jacket from Paul Smith."

But more importantly, by accident or design, the epicentre of activity in Leeds started to revolve around Victoria Quarter. During the 1990s the forgotten south of the city – from the Corn Exchange to Call Lane and the north bank of the River Aire – enjoyed a renaissance.

And it continues to prosper thanks to continued investment. It's no coincidence that the multi-million pound Trinity and Harewood retail schemes, which will see Leeds trump Manchester and become the fourth biggest shopping city in Britain, will be built either side of Victoria Quarter.

The Trinity development, just down the road on Briggate, will see Land Securities create a 650m leisure and retail complex. It is similar to the VQ's rejection of the traditional design of enclosed shopping centres in favour of creating thoroughfares which feel like continuations of the street.

But it's not merely providing inspiration, this joined-up thinking is also commercially savvy.

"It's great to have good, high quality neighbours because of the mutual benefits," says Gerald Jennings, portfolio director for Land securities. "For us, selecting the right location is key to our investment decisions and Leeds has benefited architecturally and commercially since the Victoria Quarter opened.

"We're sure that Trinity will have a similarly positive effect, as our

development represents the next major leap forward in the city's retail regeneration.

The Victoria Quarter has contributed significantly to the city's shopping offer and profile by bringing iconic brands to Leeds – it's one of the jewels in the city's crown."