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Timing of London mall’s opening a bit off

With marble floors, crystal chandeliers and a champagne bar, the Westfield London mall is glitzy and big. But when the doors open Thursday, the retail temple faces the most daunting retail environment in recent memory.
Westfield Shopping Centre in London would become Europe's biggest inner-city shopping center when doors open on Oct. 30.Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

With marble floors, crystal chandeliers and a champagne bar, the Westfield London mall is glitzy and big. But when the doors open Thursday, the retail temple faces the most daunting retail environment in recent memory.

When the project started more than a decade ago, no one envisioned the deluxe mall — with a staggering 1.6 billion pound ($2.5 billion) price tag — would be ready just as British consumers face biting inflation, job losses, and fears of a deep recession.

Not the perfect time to be opening, concedes Michael Gutman, managing director of the British and Europe branch of Westfield Group, the Australian company developing the maxi-mall.

"You wouldn't choose this time," said Gutman. "But we've been operating for 50 years and from time to time you open in a boom and from time to time you open in a recession. We are planning for the long term."

Other developers are also bucking the financial trend, going forward with plans to open malls from Dubai to New York despite cutbacks in consumer spending.

Westfield has 118 shopping malls throughout the world, but Westfield London represents its largest in terms of overall investment. As part of the deal, the company and its German partner have spent more than 170 million pounds ($272 million) building new public transportation facilities, including a new Tube station and a new overground train connection.

The opening means that for the first time in Britain, some 300 shops — including fashion giants like Prada, Chanel and Valentino — will be available under one undulating, energy-efficient roof. No more fighting the crowds on Oxford Street, long London's main shopping thoroughfare, and no more braving the wind and rain to go from store to store.

The transportation improvements, and 7,000 jobs at the mall, are the main benefits for West Londoners, said Gutman.

"We will see a positive influence in the neighborhood," he said. "You drop a pebble in a pond and the ripples will spread. You'll see jobs and an increase in property values."

The 43-acre mall sits in the heart of Shepherd's Bush, a neighborhood that has some affluent sections but is also home to a low-income immigrant population hit hard by joblessness.

Inside the mall, visitors see no signs of the hard times gripping Britain and much of the rest of the world. Thousands of workers in bright yellow vests, hard hats and clunky boots are connecting wires, sanding surfaces, polishing everything in sight, and rolling in racks of clothes, shoes and lingerie to stock the shops.

Many familiar American brands are here — Apple, Nike, and The Gap among them.

When the project started, the goal was simple: bring a U.S.-style shopping experience to central London, and make it possible for Britons to experience the seductive pleasures that have turned a generation (or several) of Americans into mall rats.

Shopkeepers in a rundown commercial area a block away from Westfield say they are optimistic the shiny new mall will help everyone in the neighborhood.

"More people will come," said Suminda Singh, who runs a bargain shop selling household goods. "We are hoping for a big improvement. Everybody is excited. We can't wait. Thursday is a big day."

People used to pricey malls in cities like Dallas, Fort Lauderdale and St. Louis should feel right at home in Westfield. Eventually there will be 50 restaurants, 14 movie screens, and valet parking.

But the very American-ness of it all has turned off some British commentators and legislators who have trashed Westfield even before the first pair of designer jeans is sold.

Sarah Mower, writing in the Telegraph newspaper, said the giant mall was a "1.6 billion pound monstrosity." She said it would likely hurt Shepherd's Bush, not revive it.

"Westfield's Australian owners argue that this center will generate 7,000 jobs, but all I see is its power to close small businesses, choke the area with cars and all-night deliveries and even pull crowds and money away from the West End," she said.

The project has also been questioned by Andrew Slaughter, who represents the area in Parliament. He said many of the commitments made when the project was first proposed have not been met and that many of the jobs had gone to outsiders, not locals. He also said the new bus system bypasses local shops.

"We thought they would try to integrate the development into Shepherd's Bush," he said. "Instead they've literally turned their back on it. It will have a huge impact on local stores, the small independents, and I'm afraid a lot of stores may close. I think there's a real risk there could be a ghost town effect."

Still, many residents seem pleased.

"The area will improve and appreciate," said Sean Sandell, 30, who lives one block from the mall. "The negative is that it will increase the already heavy, heavy traffic. But I think the positives outweigh the negatives."