LONDON (Reuters) - The attention of the world will be on London’s Olympic Park in 100 days’ time, but Nigerian tourist Olatunde Ojo’s more immediate focus is spending money at the adjoining super-sized shopping mall.
“I’ve come to see Westfield,” the 32-year-old public health worker said, taking photographs of his friends standing outside the shopping complex.
“My friend told me to come to the newest mall in town.”
Westfield will be the main gateway to the Olympic Park in Stratford, and politicians hope it will help a previously neglected part of east London become a place of destination, attracting investment and tourists.
Ojo already counts Westfield, Europe’s largest shopping centre of its kind, alongside more traditional tourist destinations such as Trafalgar Square.
Locals fear, however, the old Stratford could be left behind.
When Ojo walked up the steps to Westfield from Stratford train station, which has had a 125 million pounds ($200 million) refit, he did not glance back. If he had, he would have seen the old Stratford shopping centre on the other side of the road.
Divided only by a strip of tarmac, the road might as well be a boundary between two worlds.
On one side is more than 7 billion pounds of new infrastructure, an island of new stadiums, shops, and hotels surrounded by waterways, roads and railway lines.
On the other, is one of Britain’s most economically deprived areas, ethnically diverse, and blighted by unemployment and decrepit industries.
A new metal sculpture of shimmering lime, green and yellow outside the 1970s shopping centre cannot disguise its down-at-heel appearance.
Inside, shops advertise items costing less than a pound. There are pawnbrokers, burger restaurants and market stalls selling jellied eels and whelks.
The Olympics are the much hoped-for catalyst for a long-planned regeneration of east London.
Once known as “stinky Stratford” because of its noxious industries and slaughterhouses, it has been in need of investment ever since the nearby docks, once the largest in the world, closed in the 1970s.
Unemployment reached 20 percent shortly afterwards, similar to rates during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Sitting on a hard bench in a white-tiled traditional ‘pie and mash’ cafe, once the staple of the poor in Victorian London, Sharon Falcone said the area used to be “the pits”.
“When people talked about the east end they would have the image in their minds it was all gangsters and guns,” the 57-year-old said, pushing a hair back from her forehead and revealing a ring on every finger.
“They will see it in a different light now.”
‘WHIFF OF CHINA’
Regeneration of the east end began in the late 1980s, with pockets of wealth created nearby, including Canary Wharf, now home to many financial institutions.
However, it took the Olympics to provide the kind of impetus never before seen in Britain in terms of pace and scale, helping speed up regeneration by about 50 years, experts say.
Even Westfield was brought forward by between five and seven years to meet the Games deadline.
”It’s kind of a new start,“ said Tony Travers of the London School of Economics. ”It’s bristling with cranes and towers - just a whiff of modern China about it. A bit chaotic but on the other hand it’s economic activity.
“Most cities would give their eye teeth for this kind of one-off benefit.”
Dozens of businesses were bulldozed to make way for the Olympic Park, mountains of discarded fridges and shopping trolleys removed from the grimy waterways, and two million tons of contaminated soil cleaned of petrol, oil, tar and poisons such as arsenic.
During the next 20 years, up to 11,000 new homes will be built, a new 33 million pounds academic hub and a polyclinic created.
The Olympic Park has provided 46,000 construction jobs, with about 20 percent of the workforce coming from local boroughs.
The 1.4 billion pounds Stratford City - a complex of hotels, offices and homes - that includes Westfield, has created thousands more jobs.
Developers have already constructed brightly colored blocks of luxury apartments in the surrounding area, dwarfing the drab properties put up in the 1960s by town planners belatedly rebuilding after the damage caused by Germany’s Luftwaffe in World War Two.
“What we have to say is: come here, but don’t just go to Westfield, go over the bridge, come and have a look at the old part of town, have a look at the Olympic Park as well,” said Cathy Low of promotional body Stratford Renaissance Partnership.
‘STILL A DUMP’
Not all the locals are supportive, fearful they will be priced out.
“You’ve got to have this,” said one man rubbing his thumb and first two fingers together, indicating money.
They argue the construction jobs have gone to foreign workers and the new homes and Olympic tickets to the wealthy.
Hundreds of jobs were lost when businesses were forced to make way for the Olympic site, and nearly 80 companies are still in dispute with the local authority over compensation.
House prices and rental prices have failed to take off as anticipated after an initial spurt, and have underperformed relative to the rest of London during the past four years, property analyst Hometrack says.
However, the improved infrastructure should help in the long-term, estate agents believe.
“It should be remembered that as a regeneration project, the area is still in its infancy,” said Richard Donnell, director of research at Hometrack.
London Assembly lawmaker Andrew Boff said the legacy might have been better if the body responsible, the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC), had been involved from the start.
He said Olympic organizers had been focused “just on a good Games”, which should have been a secondary consideration.
The Olympics have failed to impress local Raymond Plume, 52, who was drinking coffee outside a cafe in Bow, a neighboring borough southwest of the Park.
“The area was a bit of a dump, it still is a dump - a new dump,” he said.
“The stadium looks a prefab. It’s a mishmash of nothing. I won’t go to the new pool. If I want a swim, I’ll go to a beach in Spain.”
Some locals are not even impressed with Westfield.
“I still prefer the West End for shopping,” said Alan Jones, 66, a former club owner sharing a coffee with Plume, dressed in a smart blue cap, long blue coat and purple shoes.
“It’s got better quality of shops.”
There are signs the old Stratford centre will survive however.
In the cafe serving pie and mashed potatoes, 64-year-old Barbara Beasey said: “I still go there. I want a decent cup of coffee that doesn’t cost three pounds.”
Les Barry, who runs a market stall selling smoked hams, said value for money could also keep customers coming.
“People still like a bargain,” he added.
Editing by Peter Rutherford