Flats, football fans and foam: A decade of Westfield Stratford City
- Credit: Hanson Images
With more than a million customers every week, Westfield Stratford City has become a firmly established fixture in the borough since it first opened its doors a decade ago.
And keeping such a large number of visitors happy, safe and keen to return is a challenge that general manager Alyson Hodkinson has become well-adjusted to.
Alyson, who joined the shopping centre in 2013, said that the venue's popularity "surpassed what we thought was going to happen".
"We pressed fast forward on building the centre prior to the Olympics because we wanted to be open for that," she said.
"Around 8.5m people came during that eight week period and then a lot of the tenants that opened with us before the Olympics chose to stay, which was nice.
"We've evolved an awful lot since then because at that point, it was just the Olympic Park and ourselves really, and now there's a lot more surrounding the shopping centre."
That evolution includes expanding popular retail units to absorb the demand from shoppers, introducing facilities to recycle coffee cups into high-end stationery and creating what Alyson believes is the first completely biodiverse playground outside the shopping centre.
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She explained: "One of the things that came to light was that our internal playgrounds for children were so well-used and overcrowded that we needed to create a bigger space."
It will soon even be possible to live in a Westfield-owned property, with the Cherry Park residential development being built next to the centre. This aims to offer 1,200 rental homes and is set to welcome its first tenants in early 2023.
"We don't really call ourselves a shopping centre," Alyson added. "This is a place. People are shopping with us, they're spending their leisure time with us, they're eating with us, they're meeting their friends and family here."
Most recently, two Covid-19 vaccination centres and a plasma donor centre have opened as part of Westfield's response to the pandemic.
Working in such a busy venue, Alyson and the centre's 10,000 employees have had to deal with a wide range of experiences - "we've had babies born here" - and admits that they've learnt from when things haven't gone quite to plan.
"We've had a few hiccups," she said. "Some of them have been quite amusing. A few years ago, we put snow machines down The Street so the kids can think it's snowing. We got the snow machines, we tested them and on the first day of launching we put too much solution in so it actually turned into a bit of a foam party which caused all the kids to slide around.
"On a bigger scale, when the Olympic Park had its first music event, a 70,000 crowd, you can never plan for every eventuality. I think we underestimated just how stressful that could be.
"When West Ham became the tenant of the Olympic Stadium, we then suddenly had to deal with football matches every week, which was a learning curve."
One challenge the centre faced prior to opening was finding an efficient way to fill all the job vacancies.
"When you build a big shopping centre like Westfield Stratford City you create a lot of jobs in the building of the shopping centre, and then all the tenants open," Alyson said.
"One of the things we did right at the beginning is we founded what's now called Our Newham Work, it used to be Workplace. The aim was to help local residents gain employment within our shopping centre when it opened.
"Instead of the stores all looking for staff, we funded and set up this facility to do that which was so successful it continues to this day."
Another part of the shopping centre's community engagement is partnering with two Newham organisations to provide tailored support.
Alyson explained that, upon hearing children helped by the Magpie Project did not have appropriate shoes for the weather, she worked with one of Westfield's tenants to provide 250 pairs of new shoes. The centre also helped to provide Caritas Anchor House with toiletries during lockdown, when stockpiling led to a shortage in shops.
"The regeneration of the area, we were a massive catalyst in that, and the area's continued to evolve," Alyson said.
"I think the Olympic legacy here in London is probably the best ever in the world and I think we work hand in hand with the Olympic Park because why wouldn't we?"