The Cowley Road in Oxford is starting to change shape at the moment. Not in terms of it being dug up and rerouted, as seems to happen every few months, but instead the start of its Starbucksification. There is always a churn of shops on such roads, but it does seem to be the start of something more significant. Several shops have closed recently, some of them citing excessive rent rises. Three of the longer term shops that have gone are Coopers newsagent, The Bead Shop, and Panda Records.
We’ve seen the arrival of a large Subway (with another only a few minutes away in St.Clements), and Costa Coffee is due to open an outlet soon as well.It’s starting to look like more of the larger chains are on their way too. I can’t see it being more than a year before we get our first Starbucks, and then the virus of the chain will really kick in. Not to mention the replacement of The Venue/Zodiac with the Carling Oxford Academy.
By co-incidence, I was listening to an interview with William Gibson today, on the BoingBoing.net podcast. He was asked which he thought was the most futuristic city in the world, and he felt it was Berlin. One of his reason for this was that the retail space was a lot cheaper than in other cities, and it meant that smaller, innovative and interesting shops were able to set up there and trade successfully. He wondered aloud how this could be achieved in older cities such as New York or London, and one of his suggestions was that on new developments, there should be sets of retail spaces with very small floorspaces. The idea behind this being that chains wouldn’t be attracted to the smaller shops, and they would thus appeal to the smaller retailer.
Interestingly, this is the same solution presently employed to preserve the nature of the Laines in Brighton. Apparently they have a conservation order on the area, which prevents new retail spaces over a certain size, or knocking through into another shop. From my own experience, you do get an interesting mix of shops there.
So perhaps this is what is needed to help Oxford’s Cowley Road maintain some of its sense of character. It would be a shame for it to turn from what it is into yet another high street.