The new Olympic sport: Mall opens near London site

Forget the games. Let the shopping begin!

That was the cry Tuesday as the Westfield Stratford City mall
opened its doors at the hub of the 2012 London Olympics site.
Thousands jammed the mall, the largest retail space in Europe, to
see with their own eyes how their once drab, rundown community is
being transformed into the gathering point of champions.

Women with strollers, teenagers in headscarves and others in
impossibly high heels ran across a bridge and through the mall’s
swinging glass doors. They lined up outside outlets like Forever
21, sipping coffee and chatting excitedly. Some sought the free
pajamas being offered to the mall’s first customers, but others
just wanted to be there.

”I just wanted to be part of history,” said Fazela Patel, 19,
who came with her friends. ”We want the memories.”

The center houses some 300 shops and 70 bars and restaurants in
1.9 million square feet (.18 million square meters) of retail and
leisure space. Built next to Stratford’s main bus, train and subway
station and the Olympic Park in east London, it will be the nexus
of all things Olympic. Some 70 percent of visitors are expected to
flow through the mall en route to the Olympic park.

But for local shoppers, the mall’s size was not the main
attraction – it was the signal that their corner of London had
arrived.

Up until now, the neglected area in eastern London was better
known for its once-thriving but long-derelict shipyards, its dirty
canals and its toxic waste dumps. But shoppers like Patel said the
glitzy, downright brassy new super structure will bring a whole new
life to the area.

”People will want to see what east London is all about,” Patel
said.

The mall is airy and bright, capturing the sunshine in a country
where it rains a lot. Puffy white clouds could be seen by looking
up while riding the escalators.

And it was packed from the start.

”It’s a community thing as well,” said Tracy Aldrich, 47,
waiting to be one of the first to enter the new Uniqlo store. ”You
can come here and people watch.”

The mall is seen as one of the lasting legacies of the summer
games – a permanent investment in a community that has often been
starved for attention. Together with improved transport links, many
hope the mall, and especially its jobs, will benefit locals.

A key goal with the Olympic development has been to link east
London with its more prosperous neighborhoods in the west, raising
living standards and leaving the community better off once the
athletes leave.

”One of the fantastic things about the Olympics is that it
brought together the community with the commitment to improving
infrastructure,” said Peter M. Harris, the co-founder of the
deluxe chocolate seller, Hotel Chocolate. ”It’s not just about the
100 meters. It’s about going through difficult economic
times.”

The mall is expected to create thousands of jobs, though exactly
how many remained unclear. Frank Lowy, the chairman and co-founder
of the Westfield Group, said 10,000 permanent jobs would be
created, while London Mayor Boris Johnson insisted it was really
18,000 jobs.

Throwing himself into his role as chief Olympic cheerleader,
Johnson all but jumped up and down as he prepared for the ribbon
cutting, describing the mall as the greatest regeneration in
eastern London ”since the Middle Ages.”

”Yes! I can tell you I did some research this morning. It was
in 1380 or thereabouts roughly,” Johnson said, ”(that) the great
London poet Geoffrey Chaucer dared to hint … (at) the cultural
backwardness of Stratford.”

Johnson claimed that errant view would be forever banished.

”You’re going to hear more and more French spoken here in
Stratford” as shoppers flood across the English Channel to seek
cheaper Big Macs and Levis, he declared.

Amid his joy, there was a least one bad omen.

During Johnson’s interview with a radio station, a large glass
roof tile – about 5 feet by 2 1/2 feet (1.5 meters by .75 meter) –
fell to the ground and shattered. No one was hurt.