The new Grands Rues? The rise and rise of Bristol’s retail parks



In May 2021, newly re-elected Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees launched a new city-wide campaign that used the Bristol dialect phrase “Where is she?” “

This was a campaign to highlight how precious, distinctive and important 15 different High Streets are to Bristol communities, and each would get their own promotional video and push social media.

The campaign hoped to capitalize on the fact that in the year or so since the onset of Covid which changed our lives and many people now work from home, people have ‘rediscovered’ their local main streets. But for many Bristolians, if someone asked them where he was, they would say their nearest business park.

READ MORE: The 15 main streets named in the new “Where is she?” ” campaign

The traditional route of terrace shops on either side of a main road has been the center of our communities for centuries, but the decades have not been favorable to them.

First, the almost ubiquitous increase in motorization meant people could drive to other places rather than relying on what was nearby.

Then there was the emergence of the supermarket which undermined traditional grocery stores both in terms of price and convenience. Then came the big shopping centers like, for Bristol, The Mall at Cribbs Causeway. Then came the smaller shopping parks on the outskirts of town, and finally, to take a look at all of these, came the internet, which meant people didn’t even have to step outside their doorstep. to shop.

But while The Mall and Cabot Circus, retail parks and the internet have hit every main street in Bristol so badly, and internet shopping and the pandemic have left places like Broadmead in trouble, there is a place that seems to withstand any storm. thrown over it – the commercial park.

Depending on your definition, Bristol has about a dozen retail parks – usually close to a main road or an expressway, branded, barn-like department stores are functionally laid out around a huge parking lot that never seems to be full. .

The mainstays of the retail park could be the kind of stores that seem to have developed a national presence without ever being on your local main street first and foremost – a Pets At Home, a Currys PC World, a B&M Bargains, The Range, Homesense. , Matalan.

Then there are the household names of stores that have been pulling out of small towns and major suburban streets for years, but appearing in most retail parks – like Boots and Halfords.

So that’s the future now – the business park has weathered the storms of internet shopping and covid. Whenever there are empty units, it’s always because that particular retailer’s time on the scene is up – this year’s Blockbuster video, Woolworths, or BHS – rather than because people have stopped. go to this retail park.

And while High Streets and Galleries, Broadmead, Cabots and Cribbs might struggle to find a new occupant for a store as large as Debenhams, there always seems to be a constant supply of new stores to quickly fill empty units. at Avonmeads, Imperial, Brislington, Abbeywood or Gallagher at Emersons Green.

The rise and rise of Imperial Retail Park encapsulates the history of Bristol, its people and its shopping habits.

For a century, people lived in terraced houses in Bedminster and worked in the sprawling tobacco factories from Ashton Gate to East Street.

Imperial Retail Park is always busy

Then first, the post-war baby boom generation moved as young families, to the new estates two miles away at Bishopsworth, Knowle, Hartcliffe, Withywood and Headley Park.

Then the tobacco factories followed – meeting in a huge Imperial tobacco factory right in the heart of the New Estates, in the space where Headley Park meets Hengrove and Hartcliffe meets Inns Court and Filwood.

People lived and worked there now, but still went to the main shopping streets of Bedminster, until widespread car ownership and out of town supermarkets made it an easier option.

Then, when the tobacco factory closed, ten years later, the Imperial Retail Park came out of its ashtray, and over the past 20 years, people have grown farther and farther away from even considering going. in Broadmead, or even in Bedminster for shopping.

On a gray Friday afternoon, its wide sidewalks and storefronts were bustling with life, and a constant stream of cars and vans hurtled down the two two-lane lanes that meet on the edge – traders stopping in the way. home from work, moms calling the school run, older couples shopping for the weekend. It was busier than most of the main streets would have ever dreamed of.

Sam and his kids at Imperial Retail Park

Wearing Pudsey ears like her two daughters, Sam was entering B&M even though she confessed that she was not a fan. “I still miss Tesco,” she said, recalling the store that occupied this unit when Imperial first opened.

“I’m still not sure it’s gone,” she added. “It doesn’t bother me at all here at Imperial. I love Homesense and The Range and am here a lot – I only live across the street from Inns Court so it’s really very convenient.

“It’s quite difficult to go into town now, you have to pay to park, you can take a bus, but then you have to bring everything back. Even Bedminster is quite difficult – where you park there and the traffic is bad, ”she added.

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“It’s just the convenience of a place like this. It never seems crowded, ”she said.

On the wide path between M&S and The Range, another woman, who declined to give her name, agreed. “I come here literally all the time,” she said. “It’s just convenience. The city is too busy, I don’t like it. It’s a complicated parking lot, get there.

“It would be great if they had more here, but I definitely prefer it,” she added, struggling to remember the last time she was on East Street in Bedminster, or Broadmead. “I went to Cabot Circus because Christmas is approaching, but I usually wouldn’t. I do everything here – get the prescriptions from Boots, everything, ”she said.

And, for politicians, planners, environmental activists, business leaders and the people who own and operate stores and malls in places like Kingswood, Bedminster, Broadmead, Brislington, Easton or Horfield, the problem is. pose: can they compete with this?

An illustration of East Street as part of Bedminster BID's 'East Street Vision'
An illustration of East Street as part of Bedminster BID’s “East Street Vision” – as part of a £ 10million plan to revitalize High Street in south Bristol

And the problem, of course, is that even those who live close by, will have driven to the parking lot where it is always free and there is always room.

And in the 15 years that retail parks have taken over Bristol’s shopping habits for the first time, they are adapting.

Just before the pandemic, the chain of gyms Pure Gym began collecting empty units from many retail parks. In 2018, a gymnasium was allowed to open in Avonmeads. Just last month, Pure Gym applied to open a unit at Eastgate Retail Park, next to Ikea and Tesco in Eastville.

Planners told them they didn’t even need a building permit to take over a unit recently occupied by the UK retail brand’s latest victim – Laura Ashley.

But there are brakes on this increase. In 2019, Bristol City Council planners refused permission for CPG Wilmslow Ltd, the owner of Eastgate Retail Park, to expand with three new units, citing the negative impact on Broadmead and fears of creating a even bigger magnet for buyers.

But shopping parks are cementing their place as new main streets, and not only do we attract more of us, they also attract shops. Lidl takes over the closed Currys / PC World department store in Avonmeads, and Aldi recently opened on Imperial Road. Inside Subway has opened, with outdoor seating and dining areas in the spacious spaces between stores and cars. With places to eat, take medicine, and go to the gym as well as shop now, this might be what the New Main Street looks like now.

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