Mega-mall: Is this the future of shopping?

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He's built a global empire of malls. Now, in London, Frank Lowy is about to unveil his boldest project yet – just as recession hits. Does he know something we don't? Rob Sharp reports on a £1.7bn gamble

On a building site in west London, 8,000 contractors are crawling across a gargantuan, soon-to-be-finished shopping centre. Lifts raise builders in hi-vis jackets as they finish painting restaurant exteriors. Droves of stone masons hurriedly shift huge granite slabs into their final resting places. Sparks from welding torches cascade to the floor. Rivers of polythene wrapping snake as far as the eye can see.

When Boris Johnson opens its doors on Thursday next week, Westfield London will be Britain's largest urban shopping centre. Sprawling across 43 acres just north of Shepherd's Bush Green, it will house 265 shops, with Tiffany & Co, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada and De Beers offering glitz alongside Waitrose, Russell & Bromley, Marks & Spencer and other familiar high-street names. There will be dozens of restaurants, a library, and two new London Underground stations to bring in the masses. Those who drive will have the option of employing the services of a 70-strong team of valets. Needless to say, this is no ordinary shopping centre. Its makers are marketing it as the cutting edge of "retail experiences".

Costing £1.7bn, it is also the biggest venture – in monetary terms – that the development company, Westfield, has ever undertaken. Back in 2004, when Westfield bought the site, it must have seemed an irresistible way to ride the consumer boom. Given the current economic climate, it feels like an even more audacious move than the company may have intended. Household budgets are under pressure; consumer confidence is far from buoyant. Earlier this week, The Ernst & Young Item Club, an influential forecasting agency, predicted that consumer expenditure on everything from food, clothes, holidays, household bills, home improvements and entertainment will fall by 1.2 per cent in 2009. This compares with an average annual growth of 3.5 per cent over the past decade.

One would think such statistics would send a shiver down the spine of even the most hardened of businessmen. But Westfield's chairman Frank Lowy, who turned 78 yesterday, is no ordinary corporate suit. According to Australian media reports, he boasts a fortune of £2.4bn, making him the richest man in Australia. Born in Slovakia, he arrived in Australia in 1953 after spending a period shortly after the Second World War in a refugee camp in Cyprus. After founding Westfield in 1959 with business partner John Saunders (who died in 1997 aged 75), Lowy has grown his company into the biggest publically listed retail property group in the world. It is valued at more than £26bn, and leases 10 million square metres of retail space to 23,000 retailers in 119 centres around the world. In the company's homeland, as many people speak of "going to Westfield" as they do of "going shopping".

But pulling off this audacious development is more than just a question of battling economic forces. Local residents are far from pleased about the effects of bus routes imposed by Hammersmith and Fulham council to serve the new centre. Writing in the London Evening Standard this week, the novelist Sebastian Faulks slammed the new routes planned for areas close to the development for running through some of the capital's historic conservation areas. He also described how the council's consultation over the new routes was radically under-resourced, and how new buses will add unnecessary pollution and congestion to already busy and dirty streets. In addition, the scheme – located just three miles from London's West End – will draw customers away from already cash-strapped Oxford Street shops. For years, Westfield London has been spoken of as the nail in the coffin of Oxford Street.

Meanwhile, tax authorities in Australia are investigating Lowy amid claims by the US Senate that he hid £42m from the Australian Taxation Office. But this is all in a day's work for a man who obtained a shrapnel scar on his forehead when fighting for the Israeli army. Westfield London, experts say, will still manage to bring a smile to his lips.

Lowy was born into a Jewish family in 1930 in Fil'akovo, a rural town in what was then Czechoslovakia. According to the official biography on the Westfield website, at an early age he helped his mother to run the family grocery shop. When the Second World War broke out, his family sold their shop and fled to Budapest. Here, Lowy helped his older brother, John, run a metalware business, but the family was soon hit by tragedy. When the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944, Lowy's father was captured and sent to Auschwitz, where he eventually died. Without the family's main breadwinner, Lowy supported his mother by foraging for food.

When the war ended, Lowy left Europe for Israel. On his way, he was picked up by the British Army and spent several months in a refugee camp in Cyprus. After his release, he reached Israel, aged 17, to join the nation's Golani Brigade, an army unit fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

When the war finished the same year, Lowy spent a brief time working in a bank, and studying to become an accountant at night school. Eventually, he decided to go to Australia, to where many members of his family had already moved. He arrived there on 26 January 1952, carrying a small suitcase, and possessing only a basic knowledge of English. "All those events shaped my life," Lowy said in an interview earlier this month. "It's a requirement to have some sort of paranoia. You have to think of what can go wrong even when times are good. So you can never enjoy your success fully."

In Sydney, the man who would become a property magnate managed to scrape together enough cash to buy a van. He began work as a deliveryman, and it was then that he met Saunders, another Holocaust survivor, who had set up a small shop in the outskirts of Sydney. The pair's first business venture together was running a delicatessen. They soon realised that along with salami and rye bread, newcomers from Europe needed a wider array of goods. They borrowed from a local bank manager and used profits from the deli to buy farmland out of town. The pair read about the popularity of American shopping malls, and in 1959 built their first shopping centre on that land. Westfield Investments was listed on the Australian stock exchange in 1960. Over the next two decades, the pair built up their company to become one of the best-known shopping centre providers in Australia, where Lowy now owns 44 malls.

In 1977, the company bought its first US shopping centre, in Connecticut, but it was not until 2000 that the company gained its first foothold in the UK market. In March of that year it bought the Broadmarsh centre in Nottingham, in partnership with the investment house Hermes. The same year it also acquired shopping centres in Tunbridge Wells, Guildford, Derby and Northern Ireland.

Now, Lowy runs his worldwide empire – across Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Britain – with his two sons, group managing directors Steven and Peter. Frank Lowy is based on the top floor of the 24-storey Westfield Towers in Sydney, which his company built in 1974. The company founder's own floor has uninterrupted views of Sydney's Opera House and Harbour Bridge, near to which Lowy's 74-metre yacht, named Ilona IV after his mother, is berthed. It was here that the Australian executive worked on his plan to enter the UK market – a plan that took his three decades to perfect.

The company developed its first UK shopping centre, after demolishing an existing mall in Derby. The £340m Westfield Derby project opened in October of last year. It was the biggest shopping centre to open in Britain that year. Now, Westfield hopes its west London development – located in an area known as White City – will move shopping centre development in the UK to the "next level".

"All our projects are about evolution," says Westfield UK and Europe managing director Michael Gutman. "In the White City project we are trying to bring together all the knowledge we have gathered from our 118 centres in four countries around the world. This will be our 119th. It is a unique trading area and demographic in terms of the power and disposable income of the people who live nearby. It is unparalleled in terms of connectivity. It contains some phenomenal public spaces both inside and out."

The story of how Westfield created Westfield London goes back four years. It involves a complicated series of acquisitions and joint ventures, but essentially involved Westfield taking control of an existing scheme being developed by fellow property firm Chelsfield in 2004.

Westfield bought out its partners in that acquisition, the Reuben brothers, billionaire private investors, and Multiplex, the Australian construction firm. In 2006 Westfield also took control of the project's construction from the Australian construction firm Multiplex, which at the time was dealing with negative press surrounding the late delivery of Wembley Stadium, which it was also contracted to build. Westfield currently owns a half stake in Westfield London, with the other half being owned by the property arm of the German financier Commerzbank.

Before Westfield's acquisition of the development, the acclaimed British architect Ian Ritchie had designed a concept for the shopping centre. He had suggested a number of features, which included the interior of the centre being covered by a fabric roof. When Westfield took control, it decided not to continue its relationship with Ritchie and brought its own in-house designers on board, who collaborated with out-of-house architects on specific elements of the scheme. These external designers included a young firm of London architects, Softroom, who designed a futuristic-looking café court called "The Balcony". Acclaimed New York designer Michael Gabellini took charge of blueprints for "The Village" – the separate area of the centre where the luxury brands such as Tiffany & Co are housed.

Westfield's own architects scrapped the fabric roof in favour of a glass version that would allow more light to enter the centre's interior. They also introduced a street of bars and restaurants that will be open around the clock – the "Southern Terrace" – at the centre's south-east corner, at the suggestion of superstar architect Richard Rogers, who at that point was acting as an adviser to former London mayor Ken Livingstone. Rogers felt the street would improve the area's public space.

"Normally we design all of our own buildings. But when we acquired the property, its design had already won planning permission from the council and it was under construction," says Gutman. "On a major retail development, the planning and circulation requires knowledge and experience. So we needed to bring on board some specialists, which we got through Softroom and Michael Gabellini."

On a private tour with the developer late last week, two weeks before the completion of construction, things appeared to be in impressive shape. Approaching Westfield London from the south-east, where a new bus terminal and specially designed, sleek-looking Shepherd's Bush Tube station sit, shoppers ascend the shallow granite ramp or "shopping street" of "Southern Terrace". This street is already lined with finished restaurants, outside which diners will sit on terraces overlooking the thoroughfare. The façades of the restaurant are of various sizes and designs to give each its own character. Overhead, various canopies, each again of unique size and material, offer protection from the elements. The red Westfield logo is affixed at key points to the street's façade.

Entering through a huge glass entrance, customers encounter a massive central space. Above this, one gets a look at the distinctive, undulating glass roof, through which daylight streams to cast triangular patterns on perfectly white walls.

This central space contains a large central "well" surrounded by the centre's three floors. On the uppermost of these, a 14-screen cinema, due to open next autumn, will allow film-goers to take a beer, wine or cocktail to the newest film releases as well as to reserve special "VIP" areas.

On the floor beneath this, the clothing store Timberland has turned the front of its shop into what appears to be a large wooden box, in line with the company's "rugged and outdoor" branding. A short distance away, Apple has finished its unit with typical white minimalism. To one side, Softroom's "Balcony" stretches for some 50 metres. Its futuristic, capsule-like appearance is contained within a façade that appears to be divided into a series of wooden slats. Here, an array of dedicated restaurants such Crocque Gascon – who will serve modern French cuisine like "duck burger classique" – and Vietnamese street food restaurant Pho, will serve to customers who will then sit at a shared seating area.

On the lowest floor, DKNY and Russell & Bromley have leased units. Gabellini's "Village" lies to the north-east of this central space. Here, the ceiling is shaped into soft ovals of plastic from which chandeliers hang.

Such features seem to have gone down well with retailers. At the time of opening, Westfield says the centre will be more than 96 per cent leased. Around 90 per cent of the tenants locked into 10 to 15-year contracts before the full extent of the current economic crisis was known. Unless the shops go out of business, Westfield will get their money.

It may sound worrying for the retailers concerned, but signing on Lowy's dotted line may well prove to suit them as much as Westfield. It's impossible to know the details of each deal, but industry experts believe that they may not have to part with any cash for the first year or two. So they can take their places in this glittering cathedral to the future of shopping, and pay for it when (they hope) the economy, and consumer confidence, is in an altogether better place.

And many believe that Lowy will prosper despite the current economic gloom. "Rather than being troubled by the financial crisis, Westfield has almost landed on its feet," says Retail Week editor Tim Danaher. "In fact, far from being unenthusiastic about the development, retailers don't want to be left out. While the details of the deals they have struck are mired in secrecy, Westfield, like all developers of new shopping centres, will have made concessions – such as rent-free periods and contributions to the shops' fit-outs, which have helped to persuade people to come on board. While some of the smaller retailers might go bust, the big guys won't come unstuck. Westfield has got the stomach to cope."

It has not all been plain sailing for Lowy and his empire, however. The business news agency Bloomberg reports that the billionaire is embroiled in a bout with tax authorities. The Australian Taxation Office is investigating claims that he hid £42m from tax officials. A US Senate panel had alleged in July that the Lowy family and LGT Group, a bank owned by Liechtenstein's royal family, had used a foundation and companies registered in Delaware and the British Virgin Islands to conceal the fact that the Lowys owned the money in question. This is something Frank Lowy has vehemently denied.

On a more local level, the White City scheme has encountered a degree of opposition. Nigel Kersey, director of the London branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, tried unsuccessfully to take the local council to court in 2000 for failing to ask for an environmental damage assessment over the initial Chelsfield scheme. "Had the planning authority played by the rules, it would have shown that the impact would be substantial," he said at the time.

Since then, Westfield says it has conducted broad consultations and that local groups now welcome the project. Indeed, the company is so confident that it is pressing on with plans to build a £1.45bn, 175,000sq m centre in Stratford, east London, to be completed in time for the 2012 Olympics. "The current slowdown is only likely to be relatively short-term compared with the planning process and the active life of a shopping centre," says Richard Dodd, a spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium, which represents British shopping centres. "Now, when retailers are competing more fiercely for customers' every pound, investing in your premises can be a good thing to do. Shopping centres offer great access and investment in retail."

Certainly, Michael Gutman feels the company has done enough to make sure that it is not hit by any forthcoming economic crash. "Most definitely we are in this for the long haul," he concludes. "We have a history of being long-term owners. We are beginning our relationship with Londoners and we hope to be embraced as a new icon on the landscape, like Covent Garden or the O2.

"We have opened projects in recessions before and in booms before. These buildings are built for long-term and they take several years to settle. The retailers who have taken stores are our customers and we are in a partnership with them to maximise their performance. The ability to effectively come in the morning to do grocery shopping and have a coffee and maybe go to the gym and go back home as well as doing fashion shopping surpasses anything you currently see in the high street."

In an interview last month, Frank Lowy, Gutman's ultimate boss, divulged that a few times a month, he plays poker. The billionaire says he gambles for stakes high enough to be painful if he doesn't win. "It has to hurt you a little bit when you lose," he said, declining to say how much someone with his finances might actually bet. "And I don't like to lose, period."

This time, with the ante at £1.7bn, you can bet that losing would cause Lowy considerable pain.

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