Is it just me or does anyone cringe a little at the sight of yet another Tesco popping up on our high streets? Tesco is certainly a leader when it comes to convenience and inexpensive groceries. When one of its Express formats took occupancy on the ground floor of a new apartment block on Bow Road, I too heralded the convenience – it was handily within walking distance of home, well-situated between Mile End and Bow Road tube stations.
Upon further reflection, convenience is peeled back to reveal something akin to a stealth army dominating a settlement. Less than a mile away to the east, there is already a Tesco Superstore on Hancock Road near the Bow Flyover. Just over a mile to the north, off Roman Road, there are plans to redevelop a former Safeway site into a large block of flats with the requisite Tesco Metro on the ground floor. As if this wasn’t enough, what really moved me to write this piece was the discovery that Tesco had submitted an application to convert and occupy a disused furniture showroom in Wickham House, the former Wickham Department Store on Mile End Road. Wickham House is part architectural gem, part curious folly with an interesting history which is deserving of its own separate post. In the context here, a redevelopment of such a large, prominent building could yield something creative and enhance the section of Mile End Road on which it dominates. But the insertion of another Tesco, cut from the same corporate mold, would be uninspired.
Landlords love big corporate tenants like Tesco. It is an established company with a long trading history and strong financials which translates into a fairly certain and probably generous rental income. But at what cost is this to the neighbourhood? Without a doubt the presence of a Tesco supermarket increases competitive pressures on local independent or smaller retailers.
The wide-windowed Tesco store front on Bow Road does nothing to add character or interest to the street. It doesn’t help create a sense of community. Consumers enter anonymously, quickly pick up what they need, and they leave. Absent is the recognition of the familiar faces of repeat customers. Absent is a shop-owner’s unique perspective on what should be stocked for the season. Absent are the displays of fresh fruits and vegetables that we used to frequently see outside our neighbourhood shops. Instead it is pre-packaged, plastic, and uniform.
In another post, I’ll be writing about how grand parts of Bow Road used to be before it became the faceless thoroughfare it now is. No one stops on Bow Road, except for local commuters hurrying home to their new cookie-cutter flats and the National Express coach to Stansted. Bow Road is simply the section one must travel through to get from the City to Stratford and the East of England. And that itself is an important feature, as Bow Road figures in the High Street 2012 project, an ambitious plan by the project partners Tower Hamlets Council, Newham Council, London Development Agency and Design for London, Transport for London, London Thames Gateway Development Corporation, and English Heritage. They endeavour to improve the stretch of road from Aldgate to Stratford, to connect communities, to enhance public spaces and green areas, and to create an Olympic boulevard leading to the site of the 2012 Olympic Games. Tesco is not a sponsor of the London Olympics, but given its rate of expansion it appears to be a sponsor of the high street.