Europe's largest shopping centre will start battle of monster malls

YOU CAN drive within 100 yards of what will be Europe's biggest shopping centre and not even notice it.

Bluewater - which opens next week and has its "press day" today - is at the bottom of one of the vast chalk canyons gouged by cement manufacturers in north-west Kent. It is a massive concrete, glass and metal consumer cathedral to which worshippers will flock along the M25 and the A2.

But not everyone is a believer. Detractors fear Bluewater will swamp the economies of local communities and pollute the air with exhaust fumes from extra traffic.

Perhaps the most vulnerable town is Gravesend, which no longer has a Sainsbury's or a Safeway. Susan Atkins has given up her shop selling lingerie. "My lease was due and Bluewater was looming, so I decided to call it a day," she said.

James Munns is optimistic in his stationery, art materials and gift shop, saying: "I'm sitting tight, hoping for the best."

Adrian Pounce, owner of a furniture shop at the other end of the town centre, believes he serves an older clientele and hopes the monster mall may have a positive effect.

Analysts say the Bluewater tidal wave is more likely to engulf towns such as Bromley, which still attempts to cater for the more well-to-do. Even there, businesses say this part of outer south-east London will still have a vast shopping public on its doorstep.

Jonathan Clay, who chairs Gravesham Council's economic committee, thinks the M25 and A2 will be "blocked for six months" after the complex opens. Bluewater can hold 13,000 cars bringing 80,000 people a day and there are 5,500 restaurant covers. More than 6,700 people will be employed.

To some the mall will be a monument to corporate lust, but the developers refer to it as an "innovative and exciting retail and leisure destination", with a choice of 320 outlets.

Shoppers, or "guests" as Bluewater managers call them, will make up their minds next Tuesday when the pounds 1.1bn complex opens. Bluewater is 15 minutes' drive from Lakeside, the shopping centre across the Thames in Essex.

Tony Shiret, retail analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, says the consumer's pocket is unlikely to be large enough to keep both centres at full capacity. He expects Lakeside to get "a bit of a whack" when Bluewater opens.

Greg Antoniadis, the man in overall charge of the Kent project, is confident it can navigate any economic doldrums. "Planning something like this takes four to ten years, so economic cycles are meaningless," he says. "The retail trade is cyclical - that's life."

It is entirely possible that "life" might enter a more difficult phase for Gravesend. A council official suggested Gravesend will be offering a "traditional Kentish shopping experience". For traditional, read cheap and cheerful.

Bluewater has three leisure "villages" and three malls, one with a "sense of entertainment and theatre", another which hopes to appeal to families and a third not to be entered without a high credit rating. Street entertainers, jugglers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, musicians and actors will be recruited.

For those with their minds on higher things, the malls are decorated with poems by Kipling, Wordsworth, T S Eliot and Eric R Kuhne. Mr Kuhne is the architect.

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