Julia Levitt

Look for more pop-up malls across Europe, and eventually the U.S., in the coming years

LONDON—Last month marked the opening of Boxpark, the shopping center in East London's Shoreditch neighborhood that’s being billed as "the world's first pop-up mall."

The concept is simple enough: it’s a small mall, comprising more than 40 retailers, cafes, restaurants and galleries, housed compactly within a stack of shipping containers on a formerly vacant lot. The execution, however, is striking. According to the project's founder, brand consultant Roger Wade, every detail of the minimalist park was crafted specifically for the young, hip and urban.

Boxpark occupies a 500,000 square-foot site at the base of a rail station served by London's Overground, the suburban rail extension of the Tube. Although the 2012 Olympic legacy projects and East London’s burgeoning tech and creative industries are expected to accelerate the growth of this area, the firms that jointly control the property don't intend to break ground on a permanent project on the site for another five years. Wade arranged to lease the land in the interim and set about cultivating a mix of tenants for his experimental project.

The Boxpark team recently announced that U.K. mobile phone entrepreneur Charles Dunstone has become a financial backer and non-executive chairman, increasing the potential for similar projects elsewhere. Wade is working with European retail property company Corio to explore opportunities to bring the pop-up malls to more markets around Europe (beginning with Amsterdam), and says he may expand to the U.S. eventually.

Boxpark brings some solid green principles to the table, though it doesn't carry formal certification. The containers and supporting structures were assembled on-site in a matter of weeks, saving on costs and waste. The box walls are thickly insulated, making heating more efficient and eliminating the need for air conditioning (on the brisk opening day, the heat generated by one café's refrigeration equipment was sufficient to keep the space comfortable).

When the term is up, the entire modular structure can be disassembled and recycled into future Boxparks, leaving the site unscathed. No doubt its greatest contribution to sustainability, however, is the instant transformation of an empty corner into a vibrant, transit-oriented neighborhood space. There's not a parking spot to be found on-site, but there's a rail line, multiple bus connections, bike parking and thousands of apartments and workplaces within walking distance.

Wade is sensitive about Boxpark being known as the world's first shipping container mall - there are already rumors of skirmishes over credit for the idea.

In my opinion, this isn't so important, as the real smarts behind the space – the retail mix and overall style – is much harder to imitate than the container concept anyway. Some stores, like Marimekko and Dockers, are brands' first entries in the U.K. market; others represent the first standalone storefronts for compelling products like Urbanears headphones. Wade, who until December 1 was the project's sole financier, says he used his discretion as a private owner to create flexible, affordable leases (some are as short as 12 months; others the full five years) to enable many local independents to participate.

Further, he says he turned away some interested chain tenants, purposefully positioning his park as an alternative to London's homogeneous high streets. With strong brands on offer, visitors might be surprised that the storefronts are remarkably nondescript, a deliberate choice by Wade in what he calls an effort to reduce visual clutter and "level the playing field" between his independent tenants and their more experienced neighbors. As a result, a visit plays out like a treasure hunt; you rarely know what's inside before you enter a store.

There are a few issues: the lack of restrooms for customers is incongruous with the "sit and stay" atmosphere of the café-studded top floor, and indoor seating for the smaller restaurants is so limited it's hard to see how they can thrive unless the outdoor seating is made more winter-weather friendly. The shipping container retail shops leave barely any space for dressing rooms or the inventory stock customers and staff are used to. But on that point, Hayley Zwolinska, manager for the Dockers and Levis stores, says that her goal for these shops is more about building brand image and reaching new customers than it is about sales volume anyway. Wade agrees the vision is largely about entertainment, which he feels brands need to do more of to contend with the utility of online selling.

It's not beyond imagining Boxpark as a sort of pilot test for the site's long-term retail potential, particularly since owners Hammerson and Ballymore have extensive retail development experience between them. I discussed the project with Dan Cupa, a retail consultant based in Vancouver, B.C., and he concurred that pop-ups as pilot projects are increasingly attractive to even established shopping center operators.

"At the end of the day," says Cupa, "I see this as a creative spin on traditional outdoor markets – which are highly successful and functional on underutilized urban sites all over the world. This pop-up mall adds some verticality, creates interesting spaces and offers a post-industrial and local feel that is popular in revitalized neighborhoods across the developed world."

Photos by Julia Levitt

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