Occupy Croydon: Reclaiming the borough’s empty shops (part 1)

By - Wednesday 2nd December, 2015

Jonny Rose makes the case for the rise of the pop-up business in Croydon

Croydon has an abandoned shop problem

Norbury is currently suffering from a vacant shopfront problem. There are at least five unused units in London Road and – despite a series of inquiries from enterprising locals – they remain vacant.

This is not a problem unique to Norbury. Across the borough, vacant shops and plots sit unused. These shops are not only a symptom of a struggling high street, they are also a cause. Empty shops can cause a ‘negative feedback loop’ which means that they discourage investment, decrease the offer on the high streets, keep consumers from visiting and contributing to Croydon’s economy, and give a general sense of decline and neglect.

Empty shops are not only a symptom of a struggling high street, they are also a cause.

One way that we can try to solve this is to encourage and facilitate the take-up of ‘pop-up’ shops, galleries, community centres, cafés and retail units around Croydon.

The rise of the pop-up

Over the past decade, pop-up culture has taken cities across the globe by storm, repurposing vacant sites or buildings in a huge variety of ways – from short-term shops, charity workshops, bars and restaurants to galleries, studio spaces and interim housing.

In Athens, with youth unemployment running at well over 50%, initiatives such as The Loft, which uses abandoned spaces for youth-led art projects, offer precious opportunities for young people to develop their creative and social skills. ‘Pocket parks‘ are bringing new vitality to the city’s vacant lots. Athenian entrepreneurs, too, have turned to pop-up culture as a way to revitalise their city: nomadic bars and cinemas travel around providing temporary entertainment sites, while supper clubs and pop-up restaurants offer ad-hoc, low-cost food venues.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, shipping container architectures were also deployed to swiftly rebuild the city’s retail centre after the 2011 earthquake. In disaster situations, these temporary structures and other pop-ups such as the city’s now-famous ‘cardboard cathedral’ are valorised as a flexible, fast and low-cost solution to damaged or dilapidated urban environments, used to keep city life ticking over until a longer-term solution is found.

Closer to home, Hull City Council is designing a pop-up farm which will occupy disused sites and tackle food poverty, while ‘zombie’ car parks are being transformed globally into temporary cinemas, yoga classrooms, work spaces for small businesses, mini-golf courses, bars and restaurants.

Pop-ups should fill Croydon’s abandoned shops

Thanks to a variety of public and private sector initiatives, Croydon has benefitted from the first fruits of the pop-up phenomenon over the past couple of years.

In 2014, a collaboration with architectural practice We Made That, Croydon Council, and local artists saw the launch of a Croydon Meanwhile Use space in South End: for a time there was a gallery and exhibition space which saw the project shortlisted for a ‘New London Award for Public Spaces’ in 2015.

The hard work of the Portas Team in Old Town made Surrey Street home to Surrey StrEatery which introduced Croydonians’ palates to world foods care of Mum’s The Chef, Plumbun, The Liquid Pod, Sannas Goan Street Food, and Ro Co Coffee.

More recently, we’ve seen Dingwall Rd carpark turned into a rooftop cinema and bar, 3Space has taken over a vacant floor in Southern House, and Ruskin Square is a chief enabler of pop-up culture that is enjoyed daily by commuters on their way to and from East Croydon station.

Croydon has started to explore pop-up solutions, but we need more.

Sure, there are issues with pop-ups: unlike a long-term lease where an income stream is guaranteed, pop-up shops do not give certainty in the current economic climate. Also, incoming pop-up shops can perhaps cause resentment amongst other long-term retailers, particularly in shopping centres in which these newcomers could be viewed as a threat with a low overhead advantage. However, when weighed against the cultural, economic, and social advantages that pop-up culture brings, I know whose side I come down on.

In my next article on the topic, I will explain how Croydonians can go about setting up their own pop-up venture in Croydon. Tom Lickley exhorted readers to realise that “the city is yours”: there’s no better way to ‘set out your stall’ in Croydon than to take up a pop-up space and actually set out your stall.

Join #Croydon #TechCity for its final event of the year on Thursday 17th December at 7pm at Matthews Yard. Free, all welcome, to attend please register here.

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He owns a lead generation company. He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training and a Linkedin lead generation service. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  • Y Bachgen

    There’s already a proto-solution out there http://getcityspace.com/
    Why not get a Croydon specific one?

  • Reena

    I hate pop ups. You start falling in love with one retailer and then they leave. Where is the Goan curry woman from Streatery now? :(

  • Francesco Ingravallo

    We’re getting what, 80 new pop-up units next to East Croydon station next year, for food and drink alone?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the variety and quality that many pop-ups provide. The Surrey StrEatery was fantastic, and RoCo does the best coffee in Croydon IMO – but is there really enough demand for such a culture in Croydon?

    StrEatery was great but was very rarely busy at all – and it has been closed for six months without anyone greatly bemoaning its demise, nor clamouring for it to come back. The offering at Ruskin Square is also good, but again is infrequently used.

    As your article says, “for a time there was a…” but that seems to be the problem – that all of these initiatives are here for a short time only, are unable to establish much of a foothold, and leave for greener pastures, or just pack up and go home.

    Perhaps when the Whitgift closes there will be greater opportunities for pop-ups to thrive in Croydon, and perhaps in a few years once all the huge new builds around town provide (tens of) thousands of new residents, pop-up businesses could have more success.

    But for the meantime I can’t see how the establishment of a pop-up culture — which I completely agree would be good for the community — is going to take place.

  • Croydon Old Town

    As a big supporter in Pop up units, it is worth adding that there are two sides to this. On the Negative side first. Most popups use something called the “Meanwhile Use License or License to Occupy” which is a lot easier than paying or getting a fixed term license.

    Even on the Councils “Meanwhile Use website” it will tell you about these Licences but to let you into a little secret, They, the Council do not use them nor do they approve them.

    These can only last a maximum of 12 months but can be re-newed. They also have no security on them so freeholders while it is good to have something in their property on a temporary basis, the pop up usually gets a minimum of 14 days notice to vacate.

    Another downside is that in Croydon as a borough, rents and business rates for shops are stupidly high and our beloved council, while they will bend over backwards for organisations like Boxpark, do not offer support or discount rates to those taking up empty shops around the borough.

    To put the record straight on the Surrey StrEatery. The Portas Town Team PULLED OUT of this and the Pop up Emporium projects even after we had done a lot of the groundwork with lots of other organisations due to two facts. Firstly, the Council staff who thought they knew best in our view wasted stupid amounts of money paying consultants and other suppliers for services and items which was not needed. Secondly, the council out of the funding it received, paid itself 100% business rates on the two properties.

    Pop up Croydon still exists and can still be seen in action today – The Portas Town Team did not give up and worked directly with Centrale and helped to fill the empty units in Keeley Road (now on 100% Occupancy rate for the first time in 30 years!) and also a designated space in partnership with Lives not Knives which still runs today. For information, visit popupcroydon.co.uk

    There are lots of both local and national organisations which help to get pop ups off the ground but unfortunately, until we have a Council which supports projects without trying to take them over and spend finances on fees or offers no assistance, it is very difficult to get those empty shops back into use.