Architecture: Lord Rogers designs a shopping mall? You must be joking

It's true. The Urban Task Force's chairman works for an out-of- town shopping mogul. By Nonie Niesewand
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The Independent Culture
THE BIG American developer McArthurGlen, which builds giant out- of-town shopping centres selling discounted fashion, has added another designer label to its stable, Lord Rogers of Riverside. He has designed a 210,000-square-foot retail centre next to the new Eurostar terminal at Ashford in Kent. Joe Kaempfer, chief executive of McArthurGlen, describes it as "a vast tear-shaped meringue". It is expected to cost just over pounds 50m and will open next Easter providing 100 shops, restaurants, a playground, cinema and car parking for 1,680 cars, with a tram link to the centre.

Although it replaces old rail sheds on a brownfield site on the edge of town, the centre will cause controversy because Lord Rogers, as chairman of the Urban Task Force, is committed to cleaning up inner cities and preventing urban sprawl. He is also committed to cutting down on car journeys which means that he does not share the same ambitions as his new client. McArthurGlen always builds 30 miles from the nearest town in the States and would like to be as far from town in Britain as they can, at least as far as a 45-minute car journey.

Tomorrow, when Lord Rogers presents the long-awaited Urban Task Force blueprint for urban renewal to John Prescott, minister for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, plans will be unveiled to regenerate urban areas and to bring back people into inner cities. Local councils will be given more powers to use compulsory purchase orders. Yet the McArthurGlen project at Ashford was initially refused planning permission and became the subject of an 18-month enquiry by the Secretary of State at the DETR.

"We've been sued or challenged on almost every project we've done," Joe Kaempfer says. "Projects become a political football instead of being done on their merits." What makes them controversial is their challenge to high-street shops and the price wars that results from their policy of selling end-of-line brand names at 30-75 per cent discounts. So they move as far from town as they are allowed. To encourage shoppers to spend more time, they build in entertainment centres. Their plan is to encourage away-day excursions. By car.

In the US, McArthurGlen builds only in the countryside. Discounted designer jeans and trainers are sold with food and cinema tickets in enormous sheds ditzed up by fashionable architects. Then they asphalt over the green fields with car parking for over 3,000 cars and coaches.

In 1995 the Department of the Environment admitted that the government's policy of allowing out-of-town shopping centres had brought commercial ruin to our market towns, an opinion which Lord Rogers quoted in his book Cities for a Small Planet. Yet McArthurGlen designer outlets are mushrooming up outside market towns all over Britain.

In Livingstone, Scotland, McArthurGlen has raised the roof so high for its next retail outlet that along with the Ferris wheel there will be a gargantuan multi-screen cinema on site. "Livingstone - now that's what I call out of town," says Joe Kaempfer. "Smack in between Edinburgh and Glasgow. We want to build in the countryside, the local communities want it but we aren't allowed to build in greenfield sites. So we went for Livingstone."

In just five years since they began operating jointly in Europe, McArthurGlen has become Europe's leading developer, owner and operator of designer outlets with approximately 3,000,000 square feet of retail space currently in operation, under construction or with planning approval. With duty- free ending, Kaempfer has been quick to move in. At Roubaix near Lille, an outlet of 190,000 square feet opens near the Eurostar link.

Being called in by the DETR over Ashford was "pretty depressing," Mr Kaempfer admits. But he's having an even worse time getting the group off the ground in Germany. "Napoleon said Britain was a nation of shopkeepers" Mr Kaempfer says. "Let me tell you, France and Germany are ruled politically by their Chambers of Commerce. Way in advance of their importance or strength. Retailers are so well organised in Germany it took me two and a half years to get planning permission. They were in a state of panic over our outlet centres. If I'd been them I'd have been nervous but Walmart was already there."

After all this in-fighting, he has some advice for Lord Rogers as chairman of the Urban Task Force. "Don't be anti-car. The fact is that people love their cars. Clean up environmental issues but make roads that work for people and make them happy."

Lord Rogers believes that the Government has failed to tackle the problem of cars, while conceding that they are the major source of air pollution and that their numbers are set to rise. He observes that in London, "already a staggering two-thirds of all journeys are made by car. Government sources predict that vehicular traffic will increase by 142 per cent over the next 20 years."

Mr Kaempfer has the last word for his new architect turned urban planner: "Continue to restrict out-of-town shopping, notwithstanding that it's my livelihood. No, there's nothing strange about my attitude. It's just that I'm responsible." Either that or else he is very keen to keep out any opposition.

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