Coal Drops Yardby Jack Sallabank
Over the last few years visitors to Granary Square, situated in London’s redeveloped King’s Cross, will have noticed a new architectural gem emerging from behind the hoardings.
Beautiful ‘kissing’ arch-shaped buildings form the centrepiece of London’s new retail destination: Coal Drops Yard, opened in 2018. Designed by Heatherwick Studio, the scheme has repurposed two existing Victorian warehouses once used to receive and store coal delivered into King’s Cross from the North of England. By adding an impressive roof structure to the warehouses, the Heatherwick design has managed to contort the beautiful heritage brick buildings into an amphitheatre-like setting around a wide, open courtyard with retail outlets and food and beverage offerings.
The Heatherwick design is integral to the strategy adopted by Argent, the developer behind the project, creating a new retail destination for tourists and locals alike. On paper the location doesn’t have the obvious attributes associated with a thriving retail destination, such as the ‘to the door’ transport infrastructure you get at Westfield Stratford and Westfield London. It’s not located on a busy main road like the West End stores.
To overcome these challenges, Argent has put its faith in great design, public realm and achieving the right tenant mix. As Anna Strongman, who leads Argent’s asset management team, explains: “We started to look in detail at the Coal Drops Yard development five years ago, and we realised the challenges and opportunities of the space. It’s not an obvious location for retail, albeit it is in the centre of a thriving estate. We decided, therefore, that we needed a standout architectural statement in order to create a retail destination. We needed to create a tenant mix which is interesting and different from Westfield and Oxford Street, and we needed to think really hard about the public realm.”
Curating the right tenant mix to complement the design of the location isn’t a simple equation. The ethos behind the overall King’s Cross development has been to create an open and inclusive place. Finding a tenant mix that fits this and plays to the narrative created by the Heatherwick design leaves limited options, given the lack of retailers which are different from the high street multiples.
Anna and her team have filled the 61 retail units with mid to high-end price point retailers that include well-known, design-conscious brands such as Aesop, COS and Paul Smith alongside lesser-known retailers such as Universal Works and Lost Property London, the latter of which is an alumnus from the neighbouring Central Saint Martins. An interesting addition to Coal Drops Yard is a 3-storey concept store for Wolf & Badger that offers a curated selection of independent fashion, accessory, homeware and beauty brands.
While many retailers at Coal Drops Yard have made a good start to life in King’s Cross, it is taking time for the centre to become established. Part of the answer will be in Argent driving awareness of the location through an increasingly prominent branding strategy.
“We did a lot of consumer research into what people were looking for, and off the back of that we worked on creating a strong visual identity for the Coal Drops Yard brand,” says Strongman. “We wanted to make a bold statement with the brand, and it proved very successful at launch. Now that we have shops that are open, we’re trying to evolve the brand so we can showcase more of what we have today, which will help people understand the breadth of what is here.”
The development of Coal Drops Yard is just another layer in the unfolding story of the King’s Cross regeneration, with 30% of the estate still to be completed. Over the coming years Argent has 600,000ft2 of Facebook offices to complete in addition to the new HQ for Google and DeepMind. The developer also has a couple more significant residential blocks to be built and a 600-seat theatre. At the moment Coal Drops Yard is close to ongoing construction work, but over time it will sit very much in the heart of the King’s Cross regeneration.
Argent’s involvement in the project from its inception has given Strongman unique insight into the current state of the retail market and the changing role of the landlord. “Retail is going through lots of changes. There are fundamental shifts in the market, with a movement towards smaller units. There is a consolidation of property portfolios. Retailers are looking for prime locations and sites. At the heart of it is a partnership approach to develop a relationship between landlords and tenants, and to get away from this traditional adversarial relationship which is set up by the Landlord and Tenant Act. I believe there is a lot of potential in retail, and it’s an incredibly important community and social interface.”
Jack Sallabank is the founder of Future Places Studio, a place-based research and strategy studio that specialises in exploring the macro and micro trends impacting the built environment.
Anna Strongman, Partner at Argent, has spent the last few years delivering London’s newest retail destination, Coal Drops Yard.
This article appeared in Exchange Issue No. 2, which explores the changing nature of the retail sector with contributions and design analysis from leading retailers, developers, consultants and more.Read more