Vague ramblings

Alright, I lied – yet more on coffee shops

Posted in St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 9 May, 2014
Not exactly a misspent youth, is it?

Not exactly a misspent youth, is it?

So I ended up writing to the Herts Ad again, since St Albans Civic Society replied, and, well frankly showed contempt for a large chunk of the users of the City centre. At least this time there was common ground, albeit unrelated, on the issue of protecting employment land.

Anyway, per the letter below, I estimated that the City centre would find itself £4m a year short of that needed to sustain itself with the Maltings (at 1982 prices – about £10m a year in today’s prices)  – and that therefore the department store would not be viable.

I mistakenly thought that Sainsbury’s was playing hardball for the new centre, having not fully appreciated the extent to which it was abandoning town centres. I expected contraction at the edges of the City centre and for neighbourhood centres to suffer – this happened, but so many changes have happened to UK retail that I would not seek to attribute that to the Maltings. St Albans city centre, and many of its smaller centres, is struggling because all of the important stuff is better provided elsewhere – and it is far, far too late to fix that.

Anyway, this really is the last time – probably.

Sirs,

Two things: it is a funny old world when praise for past success and criticism of sadly misguided current thinking is a “diatribe” (Tim Boatswain, last week). Hey ho. It would be funny, if it were not so sad, that the secretary of the Civic Society so contemptuously dismissed the mums, the workers and the students of St Albans as insufficiently motived. Sorry if they are too busy raising families, earning a living or writing essays and don’t meet your exacting standards of engagement. The clue is in the word “busy”.

Secondly, it is 32 years since, in my undergraduate dissertation, I modelled the then under construction Maltings and predicted that it would never find a taker for the proposed department store. Hardly surprising since we had lost three in the previous 15 years, I suppose, but the competition was just too intense even in prosperous Hertfordshire.

And that was before Sainsbury’s on Griffiths Way, Savacentre (as was) at London Colney, and before the Ballito site became Prestos (now Morrisons), before stonking great Tesco stores in Hatfield and Watford, and when Waitrose on King Harry Lane was a fresh-faced harbinger of things to come.

Getting snotty about cafes that – manifestly – a lot of people actually use and for which there is – equally manifestly – a viable market, and arguing against one that not a single person has proposed, is to fight the wrong battle, at the wrong end of the City centre and well over 25 years too late. Even the burger bars have left town. Clinging by bloodied fingernails to a fantasy town centre that died years ago and is never coming back helps nobody.

Given the choice between cafe culture and the unholy trinity of pound stores, betting shops and travel agents, I know where I stand. And that is the real choice, as anyone who has studied the small towns around the M25 can tell you.

Oh, and just to show there are no hard feelings, I actually have some sympathy with the Society’s views of office-to-residential. Once employment land is lost, it never comes back. It is a genuine and difficult challenge. Snobbery over coffee shops is not.

Incidentally, I made a small error of memory – Presto had already been bought by Safeway by the time it took over the Fleetville supermarket which, previously, had been a Co-op.

 

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