Does Oxford really need this supersized shopping mall?

By Richard Lofthouse

Passing through the funny bit of downtown Oxford known as Oxpens (the ice rink, east of the railway station, looking towards the city centre), I had to blink. It was the slightly grey, slightly pink, slightly yellow twilight of an early spring day in mid-March. It was cool if not cold exactly, bright in a brittle way. Yet the yellowish hue reminded me of hot climes, as did the scene of desolation before me.

A half-destroyed multi-storey carpark, mounds of rubble, twisted columns of steel cable, a multitude of Squibb bulldozers and a rather extraordinary Komatsu High Reach Demolition Excavator, as it is called — a sort of chomping dinosaur with a very long craning neck and giant, metal jaws that can tear down even the strongest concrete structure. As I squinted at all this through a grid of safety fence, I felt my jaw slackening.

I realised that I had seen this array of desolation on news bulletins about Syria, and in recent years about Misrata in Libya, and the West Bank. Hot weather and dust and destruction. But this is progress in front of us, we are told, and it is not Damascus or Misrata, but Oxford.

There is no reason to disagree with Oxford Times writer Chris Gray, that the Westgate car park is a ‘longstanding blot on the Oxford landscape’. Soon to be no more, it will be mourned by very few people. It has always been one of those bits of Oxford that strikes a jarring note with the picturesque High, Turl, Broad and St Giles thoroughfares, where history has been allowed to continue unimpeded and on a human scale, and popular retail sites such as Boswells allowed to nestle within the built environment rather than commanding their own, purpose-built space.

Does Oxford really need this supersized shopping mall?

The Westgate shopping centre has always been separate, and essentially nothing to do with historic Oxford. As a student, I very occasionally entered it and felt, with a mixture of relief and incongruousness, that I had totally left behind any trace of the University. I was now on Planet Retail, in a parallel universe that recalled the familiar but (as I now see it) dull reality of my upbringing in Northampton.

The Oxford Times recently shared images of what the new Westgate Centre will look like, after a £440 million redevelopment. I showed them to two friends, who said without hesitation that it looked ‘absolutely awful’. We have to be careful about such hasty judgements. If I have any concern it is really about the declared purpose of the shopping centre. Labour city councillor Colin Cook insists that it’s ‘long overdue’, citing the fact that Oxford has simply been ‘losing out to competitors like Reading, Milton Keynes and Bicester Village’. That, in a nutshell, is why the planned centre should be a matter for concern. Is it Oxford’s role to compete with Bicester Village and Milton Keynes, where plate glass and vast, simply vast car parks rule the roost? Is that the purpose of Oxford too, or could it have set its sights a bit higher (and quirkier) in respect of retail?

The new shopping centre will have a car park underground. Out of sight doesn’t mean it’s not dragging traffic in and out of the city centre on a large scale, which is exactly what the city authorities need to curtail, rather than encourage — a major theme of the cover story of the forthcoming print issue of Oxford Today.

I guess I’m not alone in remembering Oxford’s retail offering through a fine mist of Ben’s Cookies and Brown’s Café, both in the Covered Market, plus the strangely incompetent yet well-scaled Co-op under Cornmarket, and occasionally Budgens in Summertown, and Sainsbury’s at St Aldate’s. It was all workable on foot or by bicycle.

With the advent of internet groceries, for hardworking families needing huge shops, there is something thoroughly incongruous about the Westgate plan for a hundred new shops, a multiplex cinema and twenty five further cafés and restaurants. First of all, it is exactly the sort of scheme recently rejected by the community of Botley as being totally unsuitable, to the complete befuddlement of the developers who seem to see the world only through multiplex modernity and rental incomes. Secondly, it is all very last-century, with its encouragement of cars and its fixation on large brands.

Here was a golden opportunity for Oxford to do something differently, reflecting Oxford’s essential difference. But it appears to have been squandered in favour of going head to head with Bicester Village. We will be living with the consequences for the rest of this century.

More from Richard Lofthouse on concrete coming down and green shoots coming up:

Westgate demolition image by Richard Lofthouse for Oxford Today. Protest against Westgate expansion, 2008, photographed by ludwig van standard lamp, via Flickr, reproduced under Creative Commons licence.


By Frances Allen

I mourn the whole lost chance to save much of St Ebbes, restore it to the vibrant Oxford community it once was and build something more appropriatet. I remember this in the early sixties, when I was an undergraduate, as a delapidated but interesting area (and have photos of the then charming Paradise Square).
A few years on, I was a reporter (Frances Filson) on the Oxford Mail and Times when the Westgate shopping centre was being planned. The editor, Mark Barrington Ward, did his best to alert the people of Oxford to the desecration of this area and I remember writing articles exhorting the preservation of a small terrace of seventeenth century houses still standing amongst the rapidly rising tide of concrete.
Sounds as if nothing has been learnt.

By Richard Jackson

The arrival of John Lewis is to be much applauded ..!

By John Glencross

I think Oxford is a near unique combination of town and gown. I hadn't seen its place in the world as competing with Milton Keynes or Bicester Village. The idea seems rather banal and the City is endanger of its unique DNA being destroyed by inappropriate planning decisions.

By Clifford Peterson

Here in the U.S., I doubt such a project would be undertaken. Megamalls seem to have had their economic day, replaced here by the return of a version of smaller scale High Street shopping districts ("Main Street" in the U.S.). Examples are Germantown Avenue in the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia and Church Street in Burlington, Vermont. As for the old Westgate, on my one or two visits there I found it almost as unpleasant as, say, the Churchill Square mall in Brighton. I'll stay east of St. Ebbes, I believe.

By Joseph Mason

When I arrived in Oxford this area of the city had little streets of (17th century?) stone cottages. They were demolished shortly afterwards and I helped on an archaeological carried out on the site. By the time I left Oxford the Westgate centre was up and running, but if I ever went there I have forgotten it. As you say, it was not a part of Oxford, and utterly unmemorable.

By Edward Higgs

I never thought that I'd see something that made the Grand Arcade in Cambridge look half decent!

By jg

Hear! Hear! There are so many other places eager to follow a Lowest Common Denominator approach to the future. Besides the Westgate "Centre" was always an irrelevance to Oxford, and the rebuild is no doubt doomed to failure. I wonder what will have replaced it by 2040?.

By Bob Watt (Balli...

The sneering (and rather snobbish) reference to Milton Keynes is quite unnecessary. Milton Keynes may be new but as a (nearly) city it has many advantages over Oxford.
We do not have traffic jams in the city. I can drive from our home, which is by a beautiful lake, the Ouzel valley, and the Grand Union Canal into the centre of the city (some 4 miles) in 10 minutes. I can park all day for £4 (or £8 by the railway station - which gives me a 30-40 minute trip to Euston).
I can (and do) run up to a half marathon from my home (not repeating any of the route) on off-road paths having had to cross one minor road. The track takes me round two lakes, part of the Ouzel, etc. It is beautiful.
We have three areas of ancient woodland in the city. Just up the road from us - or a x-country walk or run - is a village parts of which date from the 12th century. Some of the original villages remain - including the original Milton Keynes village.
We have five thousand acres of parkland in the city. Yes, five thousand acres. Oxford's parks look miserly compared to those in Milton Keynes and are very poorly maintained.
We have excellent public sports facilities - for use or spectating including the football ground where part of the Rugby World Cup is to be played later this year
Yes, we have shops; and Middleton Hall (part of CMK) has a Christmas display for children and a summer play park with sand, a helter-skelter and a roundabout and trade fairs throughout the year.
Most importantly we have a 4 bedroom detached house with conservatory, garage, and garden. It cost us just over £300k at the beginning of the year The immediate area has some of the same feel as, say, Summertown - it certainly is not Blackbird Leys.
The cultural life is good - we have vowed not to attend concerts in Oxford because of the parking - we tried it once... the evening was ruined by the scrabble for parking space. Apart from the Stables in MK (with its wide range of music) we have at least three other concert venues - including the only surviving church designed by Robert Hooke. We have the theatre with West End Shows at half the price with free parking.
Please don't mock us. Milton Keynes is unique and,as far as I can see, an almost perfect place to live. Visit us with an open mind.
Prof. bob Watt BA, BCL, PhD

By Michael King

I agree with the sentiments expressed by Mr. Lofthouse. It is impossible to comprehend how the local Council and its planners can allow what amounts to wholesale desecration of what was and should remain one of our finest centres. Cornmarket is now one of the ugliest main streets of any major city and the whole of the centre is an amalgum of fast food and other eateries. Those responsible for allowing this should be ashamed. Gloucester Green is a good example of this. It should be an oasis of calm in the Centre but instead has been allowed to become a dirty and noisy area. Even the trees are under threat.
What hope is there?
Michael King

By Barbara Ritchie

They will NOT be able to compete with Bicester Village (where PRICES are 50-80% lower than "retail" and where, with the exceptions of Brora, Toast and Sahara and Boots, I always now shop!

Will they now make an "Outlet Village" in Oxford, too? And all those wonderful "individual" shops that Oxford USED to have, but which have over the years gone to the wall due to high rents and rates and so forth will not be "re-issued" in a Grand Shopping what, exactly is the point of it all???? What OTHER shops, one wonders, might they PUT in a Grand Shopping Mall that are not already IN the High and surrounding streets???). And Oxford needs more cafes and snack bars and restaurants like it needs a hole in the head! It has ENOUGH cinemas!! (considering the relatively small number of films now made that are actually worth watching)

What Oxford DOES need is DECENTLY-PRICED, "charming"--if this is any longer possible--flats, student and tourist accommodation and housing!

By Tim

I could have guessed the content of this article without even having read it.

By David Dunstan

Downtown Oxford? I didn't know Oxford had a downtown. This is reserved for American cities.

By RH Findlay

Sounds like Oxford is run by my local city council in the vast 240 000-person metropolis of Hobart where we have 5 cities, each run by councils who think it is still 1962. Welcome to modern Australia, Oxford!

By Timothy Keates

I was at Worcester College in the early 1960s and remember much of the city area in question as rather dull. However, the construction of a mammoth shopping centre won't improve matters. What Oxford needs is plenty of affordable accommodation — but, alas, that is just what it will not get, for all sorts of reasons, economic, political, social, cultural. And this wrong choice reflects perfectly one of the major problems of the UK in the 21st century.

By Peter Crawford

There is no reason to get steamed up about the new Westgate Centre. The pass was sold many years ago when the current Westgate Centre, now crumbling , was built. The new one now under construction will be no worse; probably rather better. For a start the car park will be underground and invisible whereas the old one was the most prominent feature of the city on arriving from the west.

By Robert Tack

I too remember Oxford in the sixties - with the first concrete excrescence (then Woolworth's). The commercialisation of the centre of the historic city of Oxford, without accompanying ability to get in and out if you do not live nearby, has been poorly done - out of keeping with the University town that is the great tourist attraction that it is. Fortunately the University has kept and improved its historic grandeur and grounds (Uni park, Christchurch meadows, the colleges and their grounds etc.) - most likely a result of its not being run by Oxford council. I have always thought that the modern shopping precinct should have been developed, with a long term plan, out of the city centre - the Botley road section could have been this with a long term plan set in place in the late 60's.

By Grant A. Brown

I don't know whether or not Oxford really needs a supersized shopping mall. But I do mourn the loss of freedom when everyone feels entitled to mind everyone else's business.

By Lynne Hoover

No, no,no, a thousand times no! I was in Oxford this time last year. The city center will always be a precious memory. Don't change it!