The Changing Retail Face Of Leeds: Independent vs. Corporate

Posted on March 24, 2013


A lot has been happening in our city centre recently. Retail spaces have been popping up all over town, and finally it seems the building work in Leeds city centre is coming to an end! The development that has experienced a whole lot of hype – Trinity Leeds – is now built and open to the public. If you have time, the Observation Wheel on Harewood Street provides a brilliant bird’s-eye view of all the new developments including Trinity and the Leeds Arena.

The opening of Trinity Leeds last Thursday saw thousands flock to the new and impressive retail quarters, home to industry giants including big names like H&M, Mango and Urban Outfitters. Apart from fashion stores, the UK’s largest shopping centre also holds restaurants, bars, cafes and an exclusive cinema offering a very different viewing experience.

On the other end of the scale, shops are still closing as big name companies continue to reach administration status. Before the paint had dried on Republic’s wall it was into administration. HMV is in what I can only assume is a kind of limbo state, with some stores staying open and some closing. However, if there’s one thing you can guarantee, it’s that it’s only a matter of time before another retail giant takes their place on the high-street.

The prime city centre spots are easy pickings, but when an independent store closes it can be months or in some cases years until it’s replaced. It’s easy to forget about the small time shops on the outer edge of town.

Bird's Yard is a diamond in the rough

Kirkgate street. Bird’s Yard is a diamond in the rough

I’m not complaining about where I live – I love it. Where else in Leeds can one overhear a man trying to purchase a kilo of ‘chicken fillets’ in a local Chinese supermarket while casually pondering what type of noodle to have with dinner? So as I was saying, I’m not complaining about where I live, but the view from my living room window is a bleak one.

Derelict shops line the road (minus the odd takeaway or convenience store selling mostly gherkins – how very convenient). Above is a row of what I believe used to be flats, mostly boarded up or with smashed in windows. They are all vacant except for the East Asian family squatting in the flat directly opposite mine (this can get pretty awkward since neither of us has proper curtains). I can’t help but wonder when (or if) someone will put money into regenerating these city centre streets.

However, the same street is also home to one of the best independent department stores in town: Bird’s Yard. I can’t help but feel the street has so much potential, and I wish that more of the investment money was going into the hands of people like the folks at Bird’s Yard so we could see more of these brilliant shops. Sadly burglars seem to also agree that Bird’s Yard is a pretty awesome place and the store has been broken in to a few times. If more cash were to be put into protecting and regenerating streets like Kirkgate, more shops such as Bird’s Yard would thrive. It seems cruel that the people at Bird’s Yard, who already have to compete with big names on the high-street, have to contend with burglars too.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Thanks to a brilliant project launched by Leeds City Council, students from local universities competed in the recent ‘Window of Opportunity’ competition. The aim was to brighten up vacant retail spaces in Leeds with beautiful designs, turning depressing vacant shops into interesting works of art. Hopefully the project encouraged people to look at vacant shops with a different perspective, and I really hope a few business types and investors took an interest in buying some of the shops.

The students from Leeds College of Art and Leeds Met created some brilliant designs as part of the ‘Window of Opportunity’ competition. Yesterday was the last day to check out the designs on display at Crossgates Shopping Centre, but hopefully Leeds Council will think about rolling this idea out into a permanent feature.


Secret pieces of art hide beneath the surface of Leeds.


Are our rugged but loveable areas inspiration for independent artists?

The Kirkgate and Eastgate area is expected to change dramatically by 2016 due to the arrival of the new Eastgate Quarters shopping centre. The Eastgate development will be built behind Kirkgate market. I’m definitely in two minds about the development. On the one hand it’s good that money is being put into the area around Kirkgate, but I don’t believe that another shopping centre is the way to breathe life into the area.

Yes, the Kirkgate/Eastgate area is rough around the edges and has been in dire need of a cash injection for a while, but I don’t think that slapping another corporate shopping centre development into the area is the way to do it. I think the inspiration for independent shops such as Bird’s Yard  hides within the rugged beauty of the area. This is why the area attracts great one-off bars like Outlaws Yacht Club. Take a look inside Kirkgate Market and you will see far too many empty stalls, especially in the middle. It would be great to see these empty stalls taken up by passionate independent traders.

More money should be placed into creating a safe and nurturing environment so that independent shops can continue to survive and more can grow. After all, do we really need yet another Marks & Spencer/Primark/Next? *delete as appropriate*. Corporate chains have every right to be on the high-street, but I for one am getting bored with duplicates.

Posted in: Art and Culture