Queen Elizabeth II visits Liverpool One in 2008. Credit: PNW

Check it out: Liverpool ONE turns five

Matthew AshtonLiverpool-based architect Matthew Ashton reflects upon the impact of Grosvenor's £1bn retail-led development five years after the first stores opened their doors.

The success of Liverpool ONE has in one sense been in the redefinition of Liverpool as an acceptable shopping destination to those outside the city. For many years before it opened in 2008, the city appeared to lag behind others as a desirable retail destination, well below the potential for a city of this size, even with such redoubtable institutions as John Lewis.

Against this outward perception, Liverpool ONE sought to restore the city's retail position, tempting back those perhaps seduced by the convenience and theatricality of the Trafford Centre, or the value-driven offer of Cheshire Oaks. The Liverpool ONE offer is designed to reassure, and features the mix of the brands you would expect – this is very much the point, to reposition Liverpool as a safe bet for prospective shoppers in the region.

How to define success? It may be the mix of stores, the manicured environment; I suspect it may be the ample car parking provision with covered access. Occupancy rates appear healthy, though it would seem that a subtle shift towards food and drink is occurring presently, perhaps indicative of the continuing uncertainty in high street retail.

It is worth remembering that Liverpool ONE was born into interesting times – would you honestly have considered the investment in an – at the time – under-performing urban retail centre, given the sustained blow to the high street delivered by edge-of-town developments, not to mention online shopping? Grosvenor evidently saw benefit in the longer term, and their investment to this end has been substantial.

Opening into perhaps more than interesting times, as the global financial system went into reverse gear, Liverpool ONE has since had the challenge of growing a multifarious offer alongside the traditional anchor stores, with consumer spending at consistently depressed levels. Despite this, outward appearances would suggest at least something is working, and the commitment to late opening, mixed-use and open thoroughfares are all laudable.

Occupying a vast estate between the traditional retail centre of the city and the waterfront, Liverpool ONE presents us with the question of how to correctly classify the development. Although comparable perhaps in terms of footprint and use, there has been a deliberate intent here to avoid the typology of the mall, indeed any association with that term. So the usual air conditioned environment is replaced here by streets, in some cases extant thoroughfares such as Paradise Street, in others new routes such as Manesty's Lane, which in its current form bears no relationship to the historic street of this name formerly running through the site.

The anchor is the car

Given the scale and interconnectedness of the various structures, it is difficult to discuss the architecture of any one single building; rather we must inevitably consider the development as a megastructure, building as landscape. The formal and material homogeneity is an inevitable result of the scale and mass of the functions to be housed, and it is evident that much effort has been directed towards visual interest, and not without some success.

It is, however, mass which dominates the experience of the site. Large footprint retail stores, cinemas, and especially car parks – the task of Liverpool ONE was to absorb these inevitably monolithic structures into a landscape resembling the experience of a city, bringing edge-of-town typologies into the urban setting. The car parks offer an interesting comparison, revealing much of the nature of the development.

Three approaches to the treatment of the car park have been built at Liverpool ONE: the underground, necessitating the radical topology of Chavasse Park; the sculptural, with bold cantilevers and unashamed functionalism at Paradise Street, and the mise en scène, whereby the muscular form of the Hanover Street car park is decorated in a fragmentary manner, a collage of shapes and materials suggestive of the experience of street.

It may largely be a matter of taste when considering the merits of any of the above, but the fundamental importance of the car to the planning and operation of the development cannot be overstated. Notwithstanding the replacement bus station at Paradise Street, the anchor for the scheme is the car. This is perhaps inevitable when attempting to compete on the same terms as edge-of-town developments. When we consider the contemporaneous, smaller development at the Metquarter, can we attribute the manifestly lower occupancy rates not to the tenant profile, which is comparably pitched to Liverpool ONE, but to the absence of a dedicated multi-storey car park?

Before the opening of Liverpool ONE, much speculation centred around the potential impact of the addition of such an amount of retail floor space upon the established retail centre. A great deal of this speculation has surely been laid to rest. The much vaunted "death of Church Street" never materialised; indeed with an expanded Marks & Spencer and the soon to arrive Forever 21, it is manifestly thriving. More begets more, it would appear, and the developers of the new mixed-use development Central Village, at the former Lewis's site, would certainly think so.

Five years is a short period over which to reflect upon a development of the size of Liverpool ONE, and there are undoubtedly some aspects more successful than others, but the transformation of the character, scale and image of the retail centre of the city is undeniable.

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