Are Debenhams & T.K.Maxx both closing?

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The Clapham Junction Action Group has heard worrying reports that both the ‘anchor tenants’ of Clapham Junction’s shopping centre may close next year.  Not because they want to leave, but because their landlord has given them notice to quit!  Debenhams as a whole has been in difficulty for a while, although as we have previously reported the Clapham Junction branch is profitable and one they definitely want to keep. And we understand our T.K. Maxx is one of their best performing branches.

But several sources, as well as one media article, have suggested that the relatively new owner of the building, W Real Estate, wants them out so they can redevelop some or all of the building as a hotel. This would be the end of one of London’s most famous department stores, and a true icon of Clapham Junction. It would also have major implications for neighbouring traders.

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How has this happened?  It all goes back to Debenhams’ recent CVA process – a sort of ‘voluntary bankruptcy’ where Debenhams asked landlords at 105 stores all over the country (including the Arding & Hobbs building) for rent cuts so they could afford to keep trading.  This wasn’t welcomed by landlords, but they were given a consolation prize of being able to end the leases early if they found a better deal (and Debenhams had a 16-year lease at the time). Most landlords just accepted this, as there aren’t that many people out there looking for such large amounts of space – but in Clapham Junction’s case the new landlords (who bought the building at the end of 2018) seem to have called their bluff and taken up the “we can do better with someone else” option.

We know rather less about the situation with T.K. Maxx; they occupy a section carved out of the larger Debenhams space (and they’re surrounded by Debenhams on three sides), and the reports are more vague – some suggest their lease is being ended at around the same time, with others suggesting a closure may only be temporary to allow building work to go ahead.

What will happen to the building?  The building is Grade II listed, which means that making anything other than minor changes to the exterior will not be allowed – however most of the interior (other than the Cafe ceiling) has been changed so much that almost anything would be feasible.   Rumours are that W Real Estate want to convert the building to a hotel.  There are several possibilities for this: they may want to covert the whole building to hotel use, however to maximise the value of the property (and get through planning) it may make more sense to split maybe the first two floors and the basement in to three or four largeish retail units, with the corner entrance leading up to a hotel on the more peaceful upper floors, a roof storey, and some of the back sections. It would be relatively easy to add another storey on much of the roof, without significantly damaging the appearance of the building. With huge levels of foot traffic along the street there’s still strong local demand for ‘decent size’ shop units – for example we know that Boots has been trying to find a local spot that lies between their far-too-small St John’s Road unit, and their too-big-and-too-out-of-the-way Falcon Lane site for years; even the basement would be appealing to many if it had its own street-level entrance.  

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What does this mean for Clapham Junction? The immediate consequence will be the loss of 140,000 square feet of retail space.  You could be forgiven for thinking this doesn’t matter as shops across the UK are downsizing and closing – however the problem here is that Clapham Junction would lose two of its largest traders, the ones that draw people here from outside the immediate area who then also visit the other smaller shops and businesses, and keep other smaller traders afloat.  T.K. Maxx, despite being smaller (at around 30,000 square feet), has also proved to be a huge draw to the area – much more so than their less busy branches in neighbouring areas. This will not be an easy proposal to get through planning, and while some reconfiguration of the upper levels is likely to be workable, we’d be very concerned if the retail use of the most central building in Clapham Junction’s shopping centre disappeared altogether!

It’s also the loss of an icon. Arding & Hobbs has been around since 1885, when it was the largest department store south of the Thames. A fire destroyed the building in 1909, which was replaced by the current much grander building.  And – via a few years trading as Allders, before being taken over by Debenhams – it’s been with us ever since. There’s a lot of local affection for the store, and it even saw national fame in the riots of 2011, when the boards on the windows were covered with messages of support by members of the public.

What happens now?  We appreciate this will be worrying news for many of us, including those who work in the two businesses, and it’s also important to recognise that this was not Debenhams’ decision – indeed it’s is very much a situation they would have wanted to avoid!  Things can, of course, change quickly in the property market – including these plans – and as yet, the landlord has not submitted any planning applications for changes to the building or its use.  We understand that whatever happens Debenhams will continue to trade through the Christmas season and on to June next year, and maybe for up to a year after then.

What does this mean specifically for Lavender Hill?  Lavender Hill is unlikely to feel the loss of these anchor tenants quite as much as St Johns Road and Northcote Road.  Mainly because it has always had a local focus, and the businesses that do well tend to either be quite specialist so draw people in specifically (like the Fabric store & Drumshack), to not be retail at all (the many restaurants), or to serve a primarily local audience who are here regardless (the cafes, and all the estate agents, the DIY stores and the various small service businesses).

This article was first posted by the Clapham Junction Action Group.  As ever, we and CJAG will keep you posted if we hear updates.

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