Altrincham might be the poster-child of how to make a high street successful, but it can’t rest on its laurels, writes Daniel Lee of Regional Property Solutions.
When I joined Regional Property Solutions in 2010 Altrincham was a very different place. It had one of the worst retail vacancy rates in UK with substandard offices and residential accommodation in the core and was most frequently described as a ghost town.
Zero to hero in the last nine years would be the most apt description now. This turnaround has its roots in the improvements to the public realm and the market quarter. The regeneration of any town centre is as rare as hen’s teeth in the current market so it is not surprising that the town, awarded ‘Best High Street in 2018’ in the British High Street Awards, has attracted interest from other struggling town centres across the UK.
Altrincham Market, a major catalyst for the transformation, has created a flexible social space for people to get together. This has given rise to a vibrant leisure scene with an increasing diversity of cuisines and niche bars opening over the last few years. One of the latest offerings a Cambodian restaurant Angkar Soul is trading its socks off. The less frequented parts of town have also vastly improved with Kings Court attracting Libero and Batch, specialist craft beer establishments. The local demographic has always been good and now they have a reason to visit and stay in town rather than by-pass. Altrincham’s footfall is up and the vacancy rate is down from 20% in 2014 to 7% today.
But it would be naïve to believe that craft beer and sourdough pizza have been the only ingredients in the town’s turnaround. Trafford Council’s investment in the public realm along with the town centre’s business growth programme encourages businesses to occupy vacant units and has generated an influx of independent retailers.
These independents have brought a range of quality goods that you can’t buy online and reward customers with an experience that you don’t get sitting lonely, ordering on your computer screen without the town centre buzz and the bonus of an excellent choice of coffee shops.
There is certainly demand for well-pitched retail units in the town centre where we have recently sold two buildings on George Street. Two units on Moss Lane have been let within weeks of coming on to the market and there is currently a high level of viewings, before practical completion, for a new development on Stamford New Road.
Altrincham certainly feels as though it is in a bubble in terms of demand when compared to uncertainty in the wider market. But, big retailers such as House of Fraser and Debenhams may still be on the casualty lists.
Car parking in the town centre is also an issue but there are plans to improve this with a multi-storey car park on Regent Road; hopefully this will come soon enough to prevent a frustrated exodus to the Trafford Centre which is free.
Underpinning the town’s growth and success has been the increase in the quality of housing and apartments, not only the new but the conversion of offices to residential. This potential was spotted early on by developer Novo who now along with other creative and forward thinking developers and architects, who like us work in the town centre, have a vested interest in seeing the transformation continue. It is encouraging that they are not looking at sites in isolation but in the wider context of the whole area and its community. There appears to be a much more harnessed and strategic approach to town centre development.
We will also be seeing the revitalisation of the forgotten roads of Central Way and The Causeway. The lower market development and the Everyman Cinema on Central Way is acting as a stimulus for further schemes along the road and the Causeway is attracting developer interest following some public realm improvement plans formed by Trafford.
Altrincham’s higher profile is also attracting a wider pool of potential business occupiers. We have had a marked increase in the number of enquiries from MDs and CEOs tired of the daily commute into the city centre seeing Altrincham as a real alternative. The expanded Metrolink and motorway access provide excellent communication links. It is also getting the thumbs up from employees with its retail leisure offering. With 60,000 sq ft being refurbished to a high specification, it beats the city commute and is infinitely more appealing than a business park in the middle of nowhere. Grade A office rents have significantly improved in the nine years I’ve been here, from single figure quoting rents to now £23/sq ft for the latest schemes.
But the town cannot sit on its laurels. Trafford Council continues to be proactive not only working with developers but its acquisition last year of the Grafton Centre, one of the last cogs in the wheel of regeneration in the immediate town centre core, is showing not only its confidence in the town but its commitment to its long term future as a destination in which to live, work and visit.
The real challenge is to sustain the momentum. But I believe there is the requisite enthusiasm and entrepreneurship behind all the key elements for the town to build on its success.