Empty city centers: “I’m not sure it will never be the same again” | Business


Boris Johnson has given employers the green light to start bringing staff back to their offices from the start of August. But in three city centers, the Guardian worried about whether the old standard would ever return.

Leeds – “A lot of people say they won’t come back”

People exercise on the grass outside the empty offices of KPMG in Sovereign Square. Photographie: Richard Saker / The Observer

During a normal Friday summer lunch in Leeds, Sovereign Square would be inundated with lawyers, accountants and city slickers. Now skaters and fitness fanatics have taken over.

“We’ve been here for two hours and haven’t seen anyone come out of there,” said Jack Hauxell, 22, pointing to KPMG’s bright and seemingly empty office near where he kicked. and kicking without being disturbed by office workers.

The home of Yorkshire’s tallest building, Bridgewater Place, nicknamed the Dalek for its unusual structure, was deserted. Its tenants include the law firm Eversheds Sutherland and the multinational Ernst & Young. Down the street in British Gas, the only sign of life was a maintenance worker who deposited a weedkiller.

Analysis from the Center for Cities suggests that the recovery in large cities lags far behind that in city centers. City center traffic in Leeds is still below half of normal levels, improving only very gradually since the reopening of non-essential retail in England five weeks ago. By the first week of July, only 15% of workers had returned to the city center, according to data from the Center for Cities.

At Laynes Espresso, a cafe on the doorstep of Leeds station, trading was only 20 to 25% of normal levels, owner Dave Olejnik said. “A lot of people tell me they won’t come back,” he said. “People realized the value of the time they spent commuting.”

People sit in Laynes Espresso window
People sit in Laynes Espresso’s window. Photographie: Richard Saker / The Observer

The Olejnik store has been serving commuters for nine and a half years. He had to negotiate another 10-year lease, but it now seemed “pretty ridiculous,” he said. “I realize that I may be talking about a business myself here, but there has been a cultural and structural change imposed on us.

Dan Murray, managing director of entertainment guide Leeds List, said 22 restaurants and bars collapsed in the three months leading up to June. The pandemic posed a threat to “poor” outlets as people had become more selective about where to spend their money, he said.

A survey of businesses in the city by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority found that most plan to keep remote working and social distancing in place over the next 12 months.

The real estate company Bruntwood owns four office buildings in Leeds, home to over 220 businesses. Jessica Bowles, its chief strategy officer, said the number of workers returning full-time was “very low” but increasing gradually, with smaller companies more likely to return earlier than larger ones.

In a survey of Bruntwood’s 3,000 tenants in Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham at the start of the lockdown, two-thirds said they were eager to return to the office, Bowles said. Childcare and public transport were the big challenges raised by employers rather than office security, she added.

Bowles said Bruntwood had not seen a big wave of businesses wanting to end their downtown leases. However, with plenty of economic support for life still, there will still be pain to come. YH

Bristol – “It’s very, very quiet”

Dilawer singh
Taxi driver Dilawer Singh waits for a fare at Bristol Temple Meads station. Photographie: Sam Frost / The Guardian

While waiting for his next fare in front of Bristol Temple Meads station in the late afternoon, taxi driver Dilawer Singh has prepared his recipes for the day. It didn’t take long. Between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., he had only taken care of three customers, who had paid a total of £ 17.

“It’s very, very quiet,” he said. “Businessmen don’t come and there are no tourists. Everyone seems afraid of entering the city.

Singh was at the back of the station row. He expected to sit in his car for two hours before reaching the front and picking up his last fare of the day. “The government has to do something to bring people back to the city,” he said.

The Temple Square in Bristol, which is usually teeming with office workers, was strangely empty. The costumes have become a rare sight. Many pubs, cafes, telephone stores and dry cleaning services remain closed.

One of Bristol’s most popular lunchtime hangouts for daytime workers, the Glass Arcade in the Old Town, is a shadow of itself. John Le Fevre, who runs a smoothie and juice bar, thought it would open next week but wasn’t sure it was worth it. “Usually this place gets crowded at lunchtime. The problem is that offices seem to get used to having workers at home. We don’t know if this will ever return to normal.

David Jackson, owner of Beware of the Leopard, a St Nicholas Markets bookstore, said: “The passing trade is gone. The government is trying to say everything is fine, but people do not believe them. “

John Le Fevre
John Le Fevre in his juice and smoothie bar at St Nicholas Markets, Bristol. Photographie: Sam Frost / The Guardian

Lucy Wheeler and Andy Keith-Smith, who have run the Hey JoJo clothing and accessories stand in St Nicks for more than 30 years, said teens and people in their early 20s are risking returning. “But we miss the office workers and the elderly,” Wheeler said. “A lot of our customer base is just not there.”

The desktop computers were on at the BDP architecture studio on Hill Street, but no one was in the office. Instead, architects, designers, and engineers operated from laptops at home. Nick Fairham, the studio chief, said, “It’s a bit like a ghost boat in the office right now.” The plan was to go back in mid-August, but with only a third of people at a time.

Fairham said he believes businesses serving downtown offices will evolve and adapt. It may also be that even if the center struggles, shopping streets in other neighborhoods thrive.

“When you work from home, you have to get out of the house and get some fresh air and exercise. You have and make impression or have a coffee. You can see how this could breathe new life into the local main street. Bristol has an official center but it looks more like a collection of villages. It lends itself to this hyper-local approach, ”said Fairham.

In Wine Street, British Barber Co owner Justin Patterson was collecting customer names for contract research. Its neighborhood stores in Clifton were doing decent business, but the downtown branch was still struggling. “There are no office workers, no tourists, no students around,” he said. “Will they come back in the fall? I am not sure. ” SM

Newcastle – “People seem to be afraid to enter”

Empty streets in Newcastle in April
Empty streets in Newcastle in April. Photograph: Owen Humphreys / PA

Stuck at home because of the lock, the shutters closed in his cafe, Joe Meagher was facing an uncertain future. But the 36-year-old owner of Flat Caps Coffee said the forced break prompted them to make changes, such as starting to roast their own coffee, which he said will help them weather the huge drop in frequentation of the city center.

“I open the store at 7:30 am and normally, even then, I have a hard time finding a parking space, but now I’m the first person in the city center, which is quite disconcerting,” he said. he declares.

“We have about 50% less on revenue. We’re probably seeing about a third of the customers we’re used to, but those who come in spend more. I think that because of that, we will have a more solid business model, because if you are still counting on the hundreds of people who come as before, it’s just not really possible. It will take a long, long time for it to come back.

For more traditional businesses, the opportunity to diversify can be more difficult. Phil Harris, 42, who sells fruit and vegetables from a street stall in central Newcastle, says they are selling a fraction of what they would normally be.

“We’re really down, we should be stranded, but people just seem scared to come in. We should be making 50 boxes of strawberries a day at the moment and we are only making 10 boxes, ”he said. “Lots of older people came into town just for a walk, to go to the cafes in the Grainger market, but many of them are closed, so they just don’t come. They just want to come in on a trip, but now they got to walk a certain way, do this, do that, and they’re not bothered.

The shift to working from home for many businesses is also affecting the number of people working in the city center.

Rachael Burns, a 38-year-old recruiting consultant, said, “I’m not sure the city center will be the same again, it will be so difficult to make people feel totally comfortable. And even for employers like us, we have transferred much of what we do to homework. There isn’t a huge draw to bring it back.

“I think it will take real incentives from local or national government to revive Main Street, but I don’t see that happening with all the other pressures we face. He was struggling enough before Covid. TW


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