Across Europe’s major cities, damp and decaying railway arches were often synonymous with the seedier part of town.
Not anymore. In recent years, regeneration and growing demand from new food and beverage brands has breathed new life into the cavernous spaces and their surrounding area.
“Arches are fundamentally quite interesting spaces, with their brickwork bringing an aesthetic appeal to the structure itself,” says Florence Graham-Dixon, JLL Head of Innovation for Foodservice Consulting. “With more companies looking for unusual features to work with to create contemporary interiors and stand out from the crowd, they’re a great starting point.”
In the UK, the renovation of Manchester´s arches into a nightlife destination has coincided with wider urban regeneration schemes, with the city – which has gained more planning power through devolution – incorporating rather than rejecting its strong industrial past.
“Some of the most successful arch redevelopments are in areas where there is an element of industrial charm,” says Graham-Dixon. “They can enhance an area of town – but often as part of a wider trend of regeneration.”
Understanding the local market
Location is key. While retailers in London’s revamped arches in areas like Shoreditch and London Bridge offer dependable crowds searching out lunchtime and dinner food options, Manchester’s Deansgate Locks drinking area is benefitting from its proximity to Oxford Road and Deansgate stations.
“With their evening footfall, arches with proximity to active railway stations can prove to be lucrative, whether it’s friends meeting up from across the city for after-work drinks or people grabbing take-out on their way home,” says Graham-Dixon.
“Arches-based food and drink outlets may have had most success in the edgier parts of town, but it can also work in more traditional areas of the city.”
It’s something Berlin’s entrepreneurial restaurateurs know well. To the west of the city, railway arches in Charlottenburg´s Savignyplatz, are known for their food and drink offerings. Yet five stops east to Friedrichstraße and the area´s railway arches along Georgenstraße are equally tailored towards lunchtime dining for office workers. A further ride east along Berlin´s S-Bahn line and the more tourist-oreintated dining scene is fully established at Hackescher Markt, with kitchens often hollowed out underground – an easier task for a large chain with financial firepower than for tenants in their infancy.
While small scale brewers are increasingly joining the legions of café, bars and restaurants trying out new concepts – or expanding the ones they’ve found success with – arches aren’t the right home for everyone, Graham-Dixon says.
Practicalities, such as space for full kitchen facilities or access to plumbing – can dictate the types of small businesses that can take space in archway locations.
“In some spaces, it can be a challenge if a tenant wants to do anything more complex than a café or a bar,” says Graham-Dixon. “It’s not impossible, but issues such as ventilation, fan extraction and plumbing can be quite costly.
“Conversely, by using more flexible furniture and being economical with space, pop-ups have brought a level of sophistication to their offer.”
Testing the water
With retail rents in Europe’s big cities continuing to rise, space in a railway arch with good levels of passing traffic is a great opportunity for pop-ups and unproven concepts says Graham-Dixon, especially with more disused arches being renovated as rail infrastructure providers realise their potential. Network Rail in the UK, has around 4,500 arch spaces for rent – and less than 30 are let to national chains.
“For many food and beverage occupiers, finding affordable space is tricky and can make profitability quite tough,” she says. “A new space however, is likely to offer slightly lower or, in some cases, subsidised rents.
“That flexibility often comes from the fact that these spaces are empty and tenants are starting from a blank canvas.”
For landlords, low rents entice more unique concepts, while signing larger brands more likely to trade well from day one can seem a safer option.
The challenge for both parties though, says Graham-Dixon, is to create a destination through on-trend concepts, and a complimentary mix of tenants that are specifically tailored to the local audience.
At 1.5 km long, the Viaduc des Arts in east Paris houses 62 arches. While the area is predominately occupied by small arts and crafts businesses, food and beverage retailers have also taken space to the benefit of all.
For now, at least, railway arches remain a popular choice for independent brands, who often use their location as a selling point. And if they keep customers coming back for more, they could even become chains of the future.
“There aren’t that many bar and restaurant units that are as interesting architecturally,” says Graham-Dixon. “For that reason, arches will keep their appeal among food and beverage operators – providing the location is right.”