The Merrion Centre in Leeds celebrates its 50th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 09:58 06 March 2014 | UPDATED: 01:45 24 October 2015

The Merrion Centre in Leeds.

The Merrion Centre in Leeds.

Joan Russell Photography

One of the first shopping malls to open in Leeds is 50 years old this year. David Marsh looks at what's ahead for the centre that still attracts record numbers of visitors

It was a shopping complex that broke new ground when it opened in the swinging ‘60s and there were those who forecast it would prove little more than a white elephant. The critics were wrong. This year the Merrion Centre in Leeds, one of the city’s shopping landmarks, celebrates its 50th anniversary.

It was the biggest shopping development of its kind when it first opened its doors and with its combination of shops, multi-storey car park, offices, hotel, bowling alley and cinema, was a forerunner of what planners these days term a mixed use scheme.

Today Leeds is one of the country’s leading shopping destinations and boasts an array of major retail centres. The Merrion Centre paved the way and helped put Leeds on the shopping map. It chimed with the spirit of 1960s Leeds which was growing and keen to embrace much that was modern. New housing was replacing slums, office blocks were springing up, the Inner Ring Road was under construction and a few years later Leeds would style itself ‘the motorway city of the ‘70s.’

The Merrion Centre stands as a testament to the vision, business acumen and hard work of the late Arnold Ziff, who founded Leeds-based Town Centre Securities, the property investment and development company which built the centre and continues to run it to this day. It was a bold move to develop such a huge scheme on what was then a largely derelict site some distance away from the main shopping area of Briggate and its surrounding streets.

Would shoppers bother to make the effort to walk up to the new centre? At a time when car ownership was not so widespread, some people also questioned the need for such a large car park. As new development took place around it, the Merrion found itself in the heart of the city rather than on the fringe and shoppers were attracted. As car ownership grew the car park more than proved its worth, allowing people to park up and shop in a car-free environment. Pedestrianisation, so novel back then, is now commonplace.

Arnold’s son, Edward, chairman and chief executive of Town Centre Securities, said: ‘When Merrion was built it was a new concept and not understood by a lot of people but my father was proved right.’

Radio Rental was the first store to open in the centre in 1963, ahead of the official opening in May 1964. The opening was performed by Arnold’s wife, Marjorie, on May 26th – her 35th birthday. She used a golden key to unlock a gilded cage inside which was a cake in the shape of the centre.

Edward said: ‘Obviously it was a great day for the family and my mother still has the key. It’s a lovely memento of the occasion.’

The Merrion’s proud claim to be the biggest shopping centre of its kind was shortlived. That title passed to the Bull Ring in Birmingham which opened later in 1964 but as Edward points out: ‘It didn’t last as long as the Merrion Centre. The 1960s Bull Ring has been demolished and rebuilt.’

Although a financial success from day one, the centre encountered an early problem. Westerly winds whistled through the centre creating a wind tunnel between the buildings. The problem was solved by adding a roof.

Edward said: ‘We had an awful reputation in the early days but the roof brought about significant improvements and changes to the centre.

‘It was a major step forward as was the opening of Morrison’s supermarket in the centre in the early 1970s. A 40,000 sq ft store was a big deal then and certainly added a lot to the centre.’

While the 50th anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on the centre’s past, Town Centre Securities is also confident about its future.

The Merrion Centre attracted a record 10.6m visitors last year, with over 47,000 people passing through its doors on December 19th alone. The new First Direct Leeds Arena, a major concert and entertainment venue built on the other side of Merrion Way, has provided a major boost to both the centre and the northern end of Leeds city centre in general.

At the heart of what is the city’s new Arena Quarter, the centre is well placed to take advantage of the extra number of visitors, workers and shoppers drawn to the area by the arena. Town Centre Securities is investing millions of pounds redeveloping the Merrion Way frontage.

The New Front project includes restaurants, cafes, bars, a gym, bowling alley and refurbished multi-storey car park. Edward said: ‘The Merrion Centre was a landmark development and over the last 50 years it has made quite a contribution to Leeds. We are proud of it but we don’t stand still. We are always looking to make improvements where we can and the future is bright.’

City councillor Bernard Atha, who was elected to Leeds Council in 1957 and attended the opening ceremony, said: ‘It was quite a riotous occasion because there was a wind tunnel effect and chairs and all sorts of things were being blown about. It was a problem they eventually solved by putting a lid on the place.

‘We hadn’t seen this type of American shopping mall before. It was ahead of its time and became an example for others to follow. Marjorie and Arnold Ziff have been extraordinarily generous to the city of Leeds offering great support to education, the arts and leisure.’

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