Dead Mall Syndrome Strikes The UK, Greater Manchester First
In an age of pandemics, Dead Mall Syndrome could be among the most virulent.
Until now this deadly condition has been largely confined to the U.S., but the permanent closure of Rochdale’s 163K SF Wheatsheaf shopping centre confirms that the contagion has crossed the Atlantic.
MCR Property Group announced the closure of the 30-year-old centre, in the process abandoning plans to pivot to leisure and other commercial uses, Business Desk reported.
Instead, MCR closed the doors on what was once the town’s main retail outlet. But in truth, plenty of doors were already closed, as a succession of big name and anchor tenants went bust or withdrew from the town, and the centre had been in administration for seven years before it was acquired by MCR. MCR simply recognised the problem, and called it by its proper name, which is ‘terminal’.
A vast brick edifice, and very much the kind of inward-looking mall only 1990s retail confidence could spawn, the Wheatsheaf was a relic from another era. That footfall during the brief summer respite from coronavirus lockdown only touched 45% of pre-pandemic levels sealed a fate already made inevitable by the closure of Rochdale favourites like Argos and Wilkos.
The centre has lost numerous key anchor tenant since 2017 — Rymans, Wilko’s and in 2020 alone Argos, BrightHouse and Bargain Buys vacated. With New Look and Select in CVAs and Peacocks proposing administration, the financial viability of the centre was not sustainable.
“When the change in shopping habits collides with reduced income, an excess of space, and cost structures that are simply no longer realistic, landlords have to take action," MCR Property Group director Charles Denby said in a statement. "This year has been a surreal, once in a generation experience that will not be forgotten, with COVID directly accelerating the decline of high street retail and the move to online."
Local developers, some of them already repurposing former retail sites, do not sound surprised by the closure.
“Retail is not the future for many town centres, but rather than lamenting the death of the high street we should see this as a huge opportunity,” Capital & Centric co-founder Tim Heatley said.
“In Rochdale we’re taking the [4.7 acre] former Central Retail Park and creating a new community, with modern, spacious and low carbon homes. With a quality akin to what you’d get in the city, this is about repurposing a brownfield site, which takes the pressure off the Green Belt but also brings people and life back into the town centre. We’re creating a new mini ecosystem of homes, café bars, delis, coworking spaces, a running track and everything else in between.
“We’re talking to other progressive local authorities across the north and Midlands about how we can breathe new life back into these retail quarters and other underused town centre sites and create places to live which will rival the cities. With more people living in town centres this will drive a new thriving economy which isn’t reliant on retail and which will have a long term future.”
Dead malls are already galloping across the U.S. where Coresight Research, a firm which tracks retail closures, suggested that between 25% and 50% of all U.S. malls could close. Those with value and low-price retailers are most at risk, USA Today reported.
Simon Property Group, the world's largest shopping centre owner, has adopted an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them approach to the problem by entering talks with Amazon about converting malls into fulfilment centres and urban logistic hubs.
For MCR, which acquired the centre as recently as 2017, the range of options stretches beyond urban logistics. The Wheatsheaf is immediately next to the main hub of Rochdale Council-inspired investment in the town centre, including the new £100M Riverside Centre mall developed by Genr8, the tram and bus interchange and new No.1 Riverside Council Offices.
This makes the Wheatsheaf site about as good as a Rochdale development site can get. When Bisnow asked MCR to comment on the future, it declined to say.