Last month plans were announced for the transformation of the current Leeds Merrion Market site into a new leisure development to coincide with the completion of the city’s entertainment arena by 2013. A once bustling centre offering independent, low budget shopping, recent years of high rents, competition from high street stores and the site owners’ most likely relatively long-standing ambition to increase profits through a redevelopment overhaul make it one of the latest and saddest gentrification processes in central Leeds.
With the market’s closure earmarked for the end of this year its future seems confined to the forums of ‘secret places’ websites and online photo galleries, whilst its replacement, a development of a gym, restaurants and bars, alongside the gradual leasing of new space to larger and more profitable companies in the main Merrion Centre suggests the tussle for the contents of the purses of the increased number of visitors who will come in search of sell-out tours in 2013.
I can’t speak for all Leeds residents as to how much, if at all, the market will be missed. Several years of neglect of this part of the building, probably because its cheap and cheerful image is at odds with its owner’s most-likely long standing goal of drastically increasing profits through redevelopment has meant that each trip to the market has seen more and more empty plots and a high turnover of businesses who can’t afford rents alongside a lack of customers due to this attempt to wind it up.
However, the building’s charm came not just from its idiosyncratic and low-budget shops but its architectural significance. Housed inside a Brutalist façade, the quaintness of the hand-painted signs and playfulness of the units’ cheap-and-cheery pre-fab like walls are hard to find in the UK today.
The process of renovation seems to be a similar, if much more gradual and out of sight process as the Corn Exchange, whose new owner Zurich Financial Services in 2008 removed existing shop tenants with the aid of increasingly high rents to make way for a range of upmarket boutiques and gourmet food outlets with a view to profit of the higher rents that their clients would be able to afford.
Even Leeds’ beloved Kirkgate Market has not escaped this drive to maximise profits from already existing local hubs through their regeneration and subsequent gentrification. Leeds City Council have enlisted what traders have branded “white collar consultants” to help plan the future of their market, which has already been threatened with a reduction in size to increase efficiency
The only sort of market which developers and property owners seem keen on developing in Leeds is the Granary Wharf and its visiting pannier market, in an attempt to ‘reinvigorate’ the area through an influx of upwardly mobile clientele, thus encouraging demand to live in one of the waterfront apartments whose future has seemed uncertain since the beginning of the economic recession.
The closure of the Merrion Market this winter will symbolise yet another stage in the gentrification process of city centres as we know them, a process that has found root in other major industrial cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham, whose shopping centres and residential quarters have been rebranded in parts to attract an increasingly upwardly mobile clientele. How far this will go and the change it will have on the demographic of people who come to visit Leeds is something that remains uncertain but most likely part of a trend spreading across the nation that will see the less wealthy pushed out to the peripheries.