Phil Gillam: Enterprise and kindness in town shopping centre
In books, films, songs, art and poetry, miracles DO happen.
And in Batteries Not Included, the delightful 1987 comic fantasy film, a lovely old apartment building and quaint cafe in New York is saved from demolition thanks to the kindly intervention of tiny extraterrestrial living space ships.
In the case of Shrewsbury’s tired old Riverside Shopping Centre it seems unlikely that interplanetary do-gooders will rescue it from the bulldozers.
Then again, it has to be said that this typical 1960s concrete mall (these days looking very shabby indeed) has none of the charm that made cinema-goers fall in love with Frank and Faye Riley’s late 19th century apartment block.
But this is one of those occasions where we need to be careful to separate the drab architecture from the often wonderful enterprises that operate within it.
Dorothy Tipton, a reader who is also a big fan of these many and varied endeavours, writes: “Sitting in a cafe with friends the other day, putting the world to rights, we were sharing ideas about the future of Shrewsbury and the demise of the Riverside Centre.
“When it comes to the proposed redevelopment, my main concern is about what we will lose in that area that will be hard to replace.
“As I walk through the Riverside Centre, I am greatly aware that this area, while needing a facelift, is one of care, help, kindness.
“There is Age Concern, The Repair Shop, cheaper good furniture, the Signal charity for the deaf and hard of hearing, The Links Cafe, an affordable supermarket, an art display, two charity shops.
“These places are mainly run by small, hard-working charities providing an invaluable service.
“Many local people who have a range of health and mobility problems use this area as it is accessible on flat ground from the bus station.
“I frequently visit The Links Cafe en route to town and I have seen first hand that the service given has changed people’s lives.”
Dorothy adds: “This is a cafe set up as a not-for-profit organisation with the aim of supporting vulnerable adults to be able to gain meaningful work experience in a busy town centre cafe. The owners of the business work alongside them as volunteers, helping them to feel comfortable in the surroundings. The cafe is rarely empty and the atmosphere welcoming to all.”
As I read through Dorothy’s letter I began to think that maybe The Links Cafe – comfortable, welcoming and friendly – isn’t so very different from the cafe in Batteries Not Included.
Dorothy continues: “The cafe works well alongside the Signal charity as it caters for people with a range of disabilities. It also has plenty of space for wheelchairs and walkers. The people who use the cafe also use other services in the Riverside. Where else is there in Shrewsbury with these facilities – and accessible for a growing number of people with different needs?
“I wonder if any of these things have been considered by Shropshire Council and the planners.”
Well, Dorothy, you make some powerful points.
My understanding is that, long before the latest redevelopment plan was announced, it was always clear to the shops and charities based in the centre that occupation was going to be temporary. Previous owners had planning permission for redevelopment of the site and its integration into a larger complex involving the other two shopping centres.
And so there’s nothing new about this situation.
Shropshire Council owns it now and sees it as a key to regeneration.
Plans identify the demolition of the existing complex which – I’m sure most would agree – has become an eyesore, and an architectural embarrassment to our historic and beautiful town. We can only guess what tourists must make of it!
However, I’m optimistic that a redevelopment will greatly improve the look of this area while – at the same time – new homes can be found for the excellent charities and services currently in The Riverside.
Maybe I believe in miracles!