When London city bodies Westminster City Council and shopping district development champion New West End Company (NWEC) unveiled the Marble Arch Mound, it’s unlikely they envisaged quite the social media explosion that led to its almost immediate closure.
In fact, such was the derisive response that the first visitors to the $2.8 million Marble Arch Mound were offered refunds after it was branded the worst attraction in London by some early visitors to a new construction intended to help boost footfall to London’s beleaguered West End.
The bodies are now in rapid recovery mode as they bid to rejuvenate a landmark project that has earned media headlines likening it to the ill-fated Millennium Dome (ouch), while others mocked the artificial hill for its resemblance to the Teletubbies house (of young -learner children’s television fame) and early Super Mario video game scenery.
Inspired no doubt by New York’s huge success with the High Line and its latest Little Island addition on the city’s former Pier 54 site, how did it all go so wrong and why is it so important to London that the city bodies turn the situation around quickly ?
Dismal Year For London’s West End
Put bluntly, it has been a catastrophic time for London’s West End – dubbed the “world’s shopping street” – since the pandemic forced London into a series of lockdowns and all but canned international travel. Denied the millions of tourists that normally flood into London year-round and the office and hospitality workers who usually pack its shops, restaurants and bars, the West End is pulling out all the stops to encourage people back.
Oxford Street was already undergoing an identity crisis pre-pandemic, worryingly full of tacky tourist shops and an eclectic mix of temporary lets and with two department stores departing and another downsizing, believing its long-time reputation as a flagship retail location.
While other streets, notably Regent Street, Bond Street and Marylebone Village, have fared far better, the last 12 months have been dismal. Before Covid-19, the area attracted over 200 million people a year, but foot traffic has plunged, with over one fifth of stores shuttered.
As the UK reopens for business, the city’s Westminster Council launched a $208 million Oxford Street District transformation project, aiming to bring tourists back and to revitalize London, post-pandemic. A centerpiece of the plans was construction of an 82-foot hill overlooking Marble Arch, for visitors to climb. Overlooking London’s famous Hyde Park and the western entrance to Oxford Street, which includes the eponymous Marble Arch monument and is anchored by Selfridges, the project promised a landmark decorated with trees and plants, plus a viewing platform and rooms for exhibitions and events.
Up to 1,000 visitors a day can climb the 130 steps to the viewing platform. On their way down they enter the hollow interior — designed by architect MVRDV — which includes a shop and a café selling Marks & Spencer food and drink.
Reality Versus Vision for Marble Arch
However, upon opening tourists complained that they did not see the promised “soaring views across central London and Hyde Park” from the lush landscape and instead were treated to signs of building works, scaffolding, brown turf and scraggy trees and shrubbery.
Inevitably, social media had a field day and Westminster Council quickly confirmed that tickets were no longer on sale and bookings are now only available from 9 August, as it apologized to visitors and pledged to “resolve teething problems as they emerge”.
A spokesman added: “We are aware that elements of the Marble Arch Mound are not yet ready for visitors. We are working hard to resolve this. In light of the delay, we are offering anybody who has booked a visit during the first week a return ticket free of charge so that they can enjoy the full experience and the landscape once it has had time to bed in and grow.”
Implications For London Shopping Recovery
It’s easy to laugh. But the stakes are high and a much more serious reality sits below the gallows of a poorly-executed Mound. The likelihood is that a dose of social media humiliation and a bit of time will restore the Mound to its intended glory – it’s designed to be in place until January 2022 – and it forms just one part of a plan that also involves adding pop-up parks, more pedestrian spaces, open-air theaters and cultural events.
London’s major landlords have already been working with NWEC to green shopping thoroughfares and make the West End an easier place to chill, as well as shop. It mirrors rival Paris, which is greening and pedestrianizing the Champs Elysees and championing the “15-minute” city.
Ahead of the Mound’s launch, NWEC chief executive Jace Tyrell, who has been doing an admirable job fronting the ongoing efforts to retain London’s retail crown, called the ambitious plans for the city: “A sign of a forward thinking, a sustainable and agile future for the district, creating an altogether stronger and more exciting high street that caters to the needs of the ever-evolving consumer.”
Right now the Twittersphere isn’t quite on the same page but for London’s immediate retail prospects, it is vital that the organizing bodies get the Mound and the other initiatives right. London has a tough hill to climb.