Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Decline of the city centre

Like many towns in Britain, France is also suffering from the decline of the traditional city centre. None more so than my nearest large town Perpignan.

The problem is that Perpignan is sourrounded by out-of-town shopping centres to the north (2 large sites) and south (two sites), another on the coast road towards Canet, and a fourth off-centre site dominanted by ELeclerc.  built around huge hypermarkets such as Auchan and Carrefour. They offer one-stop shopping, ease of parking, a choice of restaurants etc all within easy walking distance, often under cover.

As a result of these huge developments and the difficulty of driving and parking in Perpignan, the town centre has lost up to 60 shops recently, plus the closure of an entire covered acrcade - due in this case to a proposed 33% increase in rents at the height of the crisis. Many streets are now neglected and whole areas turning into near-slums, despite featuring attractive old buildings crying out for restoration. A sad sight.

To the west of the city centre an ambitious shopping complex built around the new TGV station has also suffered. Named 'El centre del mon' (the centre of the world) after Salvador Dali's famous description, the centre has virtually closed down as 17 shops and boutiques have shut their doors - including Carrefour, FT-Orange, C&A and other well known names. The Spanish developers are reported as having lost €150 million over this project.

The reasons for the decline include the long, unattractive road leading to the station, which has many boarded up shops; the fact that the road is one-way; poor pedestrian access via an underground walkway; and the late (by several years) of the direct TGV link to Barcelona. The planned development of a new civic centre (with law courts etc) adjacent to the station has been cancelled due to high costs.

An enquiry has just begun into what to do with the many redundant offices and hotels built above the shopping centre, including proposals to house a new School of Law (attached to the university which is south of the centre) or to transfer some administrative offices now located in the town centre.

What is surprising that this type of urban blight can hit even small villages. My own, with a resident population of just 10 000, has a huge out-of-town complex (Intermarché) which now includes many former village centre shops and services. Reasons cited again include lack of carparking in the centre and turning the main High Street into a one-way system for through traffic - which could be re-routed round the existing four-lane bypass. As a result the village centre is slowly dying like the centre of Perpignan.