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.