Queen of shops

Queen of shops

The Victoria Quarter, an upmarket shopping centre that has become a mark of Leeds’ transformation, is 20 years old this year. Peter Baber finds out what makes it tick.

Later this year a couple of streets in the city centre of Leeds that in recent years have taken on a much bigger role in promoting the city than their relative size on the map would suggest will be celebrating 20 years in their new-look format. The Victoria Quarter, the upmarket centre that has enabled Leeds to call itself the Knightsbridge of the North for so long that some people (this writer included) think the phrase is in danger of being hackneyed, is 20 years old.

By way of an early birthday present the centre has also just released figures that show Christmas 2009 was its best season ever. And while shopping centres elsewhere may be struggling, some 1.1 million people came through the centre’s doors in December 2009.

That’s a very healthy 16.6 per cent increase on the year before. Centre director John Bade adds: “We found very different trends from previous years. Usually there are highs and lows with early and last minute shoppers, but this year was more of a plateau, with a steady stream week on week.” He adds that the December figures follow on from a good year all round.

“We were up 3% on last year as a whole,” he says. “We were slightly above the year before’s figures right up until October, when there was a slight dip and I started to worry that Christmas was not going to be as good as we expected. But then it got going and it was exceptional. And the January sales were even better.”

Some people might be surprised that the centre has been in existence for 20 years. To many, the 250,000sq ft centre really only came on the scene when Harvey Nichols arrived to take over the largest 50,000sq ft unit there in 1996. But the new-look centre had already been running for six years before that, having opened to fanfare in October 1990. It was already fully let when Edina and Patsy’s favourite store came looking to open its first store outside London.

Bade, who has been centre director for all of those 20 years, says: “In many ways we did it the wrong way round: we opened without an anchor tenant, whereas Harvey Nichols is very much the anchor tenant now.

It’s strange that all this should have come about with the glazing over of Queen Victoria Street, now one of the centre’s main arcades, in the late 1980s. By that time the Prudential had acquired the land for the site, and Bade says it was the Pru that really spotted the potential.

“Theirs was quite a radical plan in the 1980s. But it showed much foresight,” he says.

The glazing they chose also fitted in well with the ornate Victorian decoration on surrounding buildings. Of course, the streets themselves go back much further than 20 years.

In the 19th Century, the part of the site nearest to Vicar Lane was a jumble of butchers’ stalls and fruit sellers. County Arcade itself was home to a marginally more upmarket bazaar.

It operated on two floors – the lower level, entirely staffed by men, sold meat, with the upper level, entirely staffed by women, selling fancy goods and haberdashery. Staff had to follow strict rules: no gossiping, no eating or drinking behind the counter, and no women wearing bonnets.

All that was cleared away by the Leeds Estate at the start of the 20th Century. Which left a free hand for Frank Matcham, then one of Britain’s most famous theatre designers who was also responsible for the London Coliseum and London Palladium, to get to work on the decor.

It was he who produced the rich mosaics, marbles and wrought ironwork that is still in evidence today. It is this that attracts not just shoppers today, but TV and film companies too. Want to do a feature about how life up north isn’t all grim but is now all about exuberance and spending? Why, get a shot of the fountains in Victoria Quarter with some shopping bag-laden young couple walking past. Jonathan Dimbleby’s recent TV history of Britain is a case in point.

But history has not always been so kind to the site. Matcham also built the Empire PalaceTheatre next door. This still survives in skeletal form as the Harvey Nichols store today, although most of the building was rudely knocked down in the 1960s to make was for what Bade describes as a “hideous” office block that didn’t last long.

And he says that although buses still ran up and down Queen Victioria Street right up until the 1970s when it was pedestrianised, it didn’t take long for the street to fall into disrepair after that.

By the time the Prudential came along, and Bade was appointed centre director, it had fallen into disrepair.

“It had a lot of smaller shops,” he says, “and all the shop fronts had gone.” They opened the new-look centre in October 1990 with just three shops – Aspecto, which is still in the centre today, a gift shop whose owner only retired at the end of last year, and a card shop which did not last long.

Anyone in retail property will tell you today it’s the classic thing not to do. “The last thing you want to do is build a centre and open it when it is half empty,” says David Thompson, retail director at DTZ.

But nevertheless, he says he can “only say positive things” about the Victoria Quarter, which despite such an unlikely start rapidly became a focus of attention to the point where it was indeed fully let by 1996 when Harvey Nichols opened. That event is still celebrated today of course.

“Leeds is still quite proud to have been the first place outside London to have attracted Harvey Nichols,” says Thompson. “These retailers usually work down the top ten locations in Britain to find a new site, and Leeds was certainly proud to have got there ahead of Manchester.”

The store chimed with such thinking and at the time it ran a series of adverts with the tagline, “Harvey Nichols Leeds, others follow”.

Thompson says the more recent success of the Victoria Quarter still shows the significance of having an anchor store like this. “That’s especially true in a down time like this,” he says, “because if you are living in the north and you want to shop at somewhere like Harvey Nichols, you can only go to Leeds or to Manchester. You can’t go to Sheffield or York.”

Michael Pettibone, asset manager at Bank of Ireland Private Banking, which manages the store on behalf of its current owners, a group of Irish high net worth individuals, adds that, 14 years down the line, it is unlikely that Harvey Nichols would move away again.

“It is a very strongly performing store for Harvey Nichols.

I probably shouldn’t say this, but I am sure if it were possible they would love more space.” But both he and Bade insist that, aside from Harvey Nichols, it is the attention they have given to the tenant mix – the Vivienne Westwoods, Louis Vuittons and Ted Bakers who have followed in the footsteps of Harvey Nichols – that is the real key to the centre’s success.

Bade says attention to the tenant mix started with the Prudential, and continued when Paul Sykes’ Highstone Estates acquired the centre in 2001.

“They were probably even keener than the Prudential were,” he says, “and they did turn people away.”

The subsequent sale for £124m to the current owners in 2006 must have been a case of Highstone receiving an offer it couldn’t refuse. Bade says at the time it had just won planning permission and approved architects’ drawings to turn some of the upper storey of the centre into serviced flats, similar to the Residence 6 flats Highstone did build above what is now the Restaurant Bar & Grill and Loch Fyne in City Square. The plan was scrapped by the new owners.

“I was originally excited by the prospect,” he says, “but we have now allowed our existing shops to expand into the area. North Face and Nicky Clarke now both have more on the second floor than the ground floor.”

But the change in owners still made no difference to the approach to tenant mix. Pettibone is proud to point out that in the four years his bank has been managing the centre, and right the way through the current recession, there has been no “downtime” on any unit in the centre at all. Rents may have increased by around 20 per cent, but the new owners have brought in new tenants as well.

The Louis Vuitton deal was just going through when he took over.

“We have also brought in Paul Smith, which has moved out of its section within Harvey Nichols, while Molton Brown, Reiss andVivienne Westwood have all expanded. All Saints have opened a new store.

And there are new brands like Jack Wills.” Paul Smith certainly has no regrets about opening a stand-alone shop in 2008.

“We are delighted to say that we have established a really great loyal clientele and are very satisfied and proud of our shop,” he says.

The All Saints move was a surprise, even for Bade. “I had been thinking that as a company they were expanding beyond the kind of store that wants to be here,” he says.

“But in November they took out a second store exclusively for men.” New openings also continued right through 2009. Thomas Sabo, a jewellery designer currently known best for its much-collected charms, opened a corner store in July.

“We try to be very selective and exclusive when we chose new locations for our stand-alone boutiques,” managing director Harald Winzer said at the time, “and the Victoria Quarter is one of the loveliest buildings and shopping destinations I am aware of both in the UK and throughout Europe. We are pleased with the good brand mix there.”

Pettibone adds that independent retailers are not overlooked either. Besides Aqua Couture, an outlet featured in the first BQ Yorkshire that is now on the point of opening a new store in London, these include gift shop Cadeaux, the Yorkshire Jewellery Centre, and Philip Stoner.

“Independent retailers are a really important part of the scheme,” he says. “With centres like this one it is very easy to look at pound signs, but if you do that and nothing else you could destroy what you have. At the same same time, we are not a charity shop.”

But there are other external forces at work helping to maintain the Victoria Quarter’s success. One is an absence of anything else much like it in the city centre.

Most people say the neighbouring Queen’s Arcade and Thornton’s Arcade have fed off the centre’s success. Bade says there are retailers in there who he knows would like to be in the Victoria Quarter given the chance. And both he and Thompson say development of the Thornton’s Arcade is hampered by its multiple ownership.

Whatever the case, comparing these with the Grand Arcade, just 200 yards away but at the moment virtually empty, makes you realise just what has been achieved.

Bade thinks Grand Arcade’s problems stem from it being just outside Leeds’ central core. Thompson points out that Leeds also benefits from having several medium-sized centres, such as the Merrion or St John’s Centre, which all cater for different markets.

“It’s not like Manchester,” he says, “where the Arndale Centre dominates everything.” Comparison with Manchester is interesting.

Despite all the crowing back in 1996, most retailers who have opened in the Victoria Quarter since already had an outlet in Manchester. Thomas Sabo, and at the time Jo Malone, are just two exceptions. Nevertheless, Pettibone says the centre as a whole can stand up to comparison.

“In this recession we are seeing a flight to quality. Are we better than the Triangle?” he says, referring to a centre near Manchester Victoria station that was restored in a similar way to the Victoria Quarter.

“I am sure we are.” During the recession the Victoria Quarter could also have been seen to have been lucky from the postponement of the building of both the Trinity Quarter and the Eastgate scheme, two shopping centres proposed at the height of the boom. Thompson says these would have been catering for different markets.

But it will be interesting now to see if they do, because construction of the Trinity Scheme is back on and its owners, Land Securities and Caddick Developments, expect to open it in 2012.

Bade says he is not troubled by that. “You have to think from a Leeds point of view,” he says. “We desperately need Trinity.

Eastgate would have filled our niche to a certain extent, but that would have been good for Leeds as well.” Certainly, Pettibone says the Victoria Quarter’s future is rosy. An American who has only been in Europe since 2006, he says the centre “is a joy to work on”.

“In my profession you don’t get very many chances like this,” he says. “If you were to plonk this centre down in London, it would be the Royal Exchange or the Burlington Arcade.” There again, if the only other centre you are working on for Bank of Ireland is an out-of-town retail park on Merseyside, most shopping centres would look like bliss.