Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre

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    Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre: Great for fans of ten-pin bowling

    Despite the scars that five decades of living with insensitive planning decisions have incurred, a sense of community has endured, even flourished, within the shopping centre. Local residents who use the centre regularly regard it with affection. After 13 years living in the area, stallholder Leah Edwards, 29, has mixed feelings about the new development. Though she welcomes the improvements, she admits she likes the area. ‘It will be a shame to see the shopping centre go. I’ve lived with it all these years.’

    Stalls clustered around the bottom sell a quirky mix of goods. One offers mystic bath oils destined to change your life, promising bottled happiness, constant work or even the positive outcome of a court case. Cheap and cheerful clothes abound alongside bargain music and fruit and veg.

    Inside though, there is a defeated air. Unflinching strip lighting illuminates ugly metal framed shop fronts and tired marble flooring. Corridors finish in dead ends while the outside market area is cramped and tatty. A worn Boots shop sign looks 20 years out of date while shops and restaurants exist in a miasma of credit transfer outlets, cheap furniture and luggage stores, discount shoes and bling jewellery.

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    Today Elephant and Castle's a hub for the Latin American community

    One group bucks the trend. A small money transfer store for Latin Americans opened in the ’90s turning the centre into a meeting point for immigrants from countries including Ecuador Colombia, and Chile. Now the centre boasts several restaurants, bookshops and general stores. The upper level is filled with Latin music and the aroma of coffee from Colombian café La Bodeguita (which also hosts regular salsa evenings), while at a grocers tucked under the arches at the rear of the centre, Hispanics gather for English lessons, to gossip, and to stock up on maté herb mix, dulce de leche spread and imported cosmetics.

    Eduardo Puertas, owner of La Bodeguita, recognises that the development might be a problem for traders, but trusts the council will give small businesses help in relocating. Creating a Latin quarter within the new development has been suggested, which would further strengthen the community’s links with the area.

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    The 1965-built complex will be demolished in 2010

    The new scheme will take shape over the next eight years; covering a total of 170 acres, it is as visionary as the 1950s original design purported to be. The finer details are yet to be sketched in, but the broad aims are to route all traffic around the edges of the scheme and allow the northern roundabout to become a civic square-cum-bus stop similar in size to Trafalgar Square. The infamous Heygate Estate behind the shopping centre will be demolished in favour of a new park and the Walworth Road, which runs south towards Camberwell Green, will be pedestrianised and extend into the centre of the Elephant.

    By the time the centre is finally demolished in 2010, its environs will have changed dramatically. New shopping hubs will have sprung up all around it. The railway arches at the rear will have been opened up into shops and bars and to allow walk-through access from the station to the civic square on the other side. To the east of the railway viaduct a large open-air market is planned along the lines of Borough. And finally, the most attractive part of the plan, the hard-to-navigate shopping centre will be replaced by a series of streets with room for smaller shops.

    The literature and CAD images look impressive, but it’ll take more than sound bites and spin to win over some locals. For a start they’ve heard all this talk of change before: plans to redevelop the area were mooted as early as 1997 but never came to fruition. Many regulars feel that the shopping centre is unfairly maligned and just run down, while traders are concerned that businesses they have spent a lifetime building up are being sidelined in the drive to change the area.

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    One of the many businesses trading in the shopping centre

    ‘We feel that St Modwens who manage the shopping centre have treated the small businesskeeper badly,’ says Shamin Udin, owner of the centre’s Castle Tandoori restaurant. ‘Rents have gone up five times in as many years and with trade falling now that the area is being cleared of office workers in preparation for the development, that’s a real concern.’ Some traders are also worried that the new development will see smaller existing businesses pushed out in favour of larger shops. Horn is adamant that this will not be the case and cites the fact that all the existing businesses will be offered first refusal on new retail units with no rent increase for five years, and that small-scale units more likely to appeal to independent shops are included in the plans. Just how well these laudable aims are protected remains to be seen. A development partner is yet to be chosen and the wrong choice could dramatically affect how the plans develop.

    In the meantime it falls to the locals to mourn the passing of a London landmark. Joseph, 76, travels to the centre every day from Camberwell, ‘I worked on the site building this in 1962. This was what everyone was building then, we thought it was the future. I’ll be sad when it comes down. Everything will be changing.’

    For the masterplan and updates on the regeneration of the whole area, visit www.elephantandcastle.org.uk, La Bodeguita (0870 011 3810/ www.labodeguita.co.uk), Castle Tandoori (020 7703 9130).

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