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Comment: Car park offers space for improvement
If there’s one thing Watford does well – and yes, I know there are lots of things Watford does with supreme skill – but if there's one thing we can all agree on, it’s surely car parks.
King’s, Queen’s, Charter Place – it’s a glorious list of the concrete-setter’s art.
I have vivid childhood memories of coming down the spiral exit ramp in the back of my mother’s car, constantly fearful – possibly also slightly hopeful – that we would crash through the wall and take off.
From a child’s perspective, it always seemed rather like driving down a helter-skelter.
Lots of places have one car park like that, maybe a few lucky places have two.
But we’ve got loads of them – spiral exit ramps all over the town, like the corners of the mighty Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. Perhaps they’re not beautiful, but my guess is that car park designers flock to Watford to stand, watch and learn.
But there is one among them that, frankly, lets the side down.
One car park that stands apart as a failure.
And if you’ve ever been to the Waterfields Retail Park, home to Sports Direct, Argos, Next, a few others and lots of irritated weekend shoppers, you’ll know what I'm talking about.
It is a chaotic whirlpool of cars. For one thing, the access road is too narrow and it’s always blocked by people going in and out of Tesco or doing a U-turn in search of cheap petrol and a long queue.
Then you have to go up a hill so steep you probably need a 4x4 in winter, only to be met by a sea of kerbs and road markings that are supposed to funnel you in a certain direction, but don’t really work.
Instead, it becomes a complete Mad Max-style free-for-all as we all hunt the next available space.
You can sense this happened to me the other day, can’t you? Driving round for ages, waiting for someone to leave, watching shoppers in the hope that they’re heading back to their cars, only to discover that everyone else had the same idea.
I was scuppered at one point by a man who drove the wrong way – driving against the arrow, I tell you – but got to the space first.
I was outraged. How could that be fair? Did the security guards not drag him away, I hear you ask.
No, they did not. His reward for flouting the prevailing direction of travel was the very parking space I coveted. Where’s the justice there?
It took my son to end the pain, spotting a gap hidden away between two off-roaders. After that, half an hour amid the bustle of Sports Direct seemed positively harmonious.
But as you wander round the shops up there, you can’t help notice the great big lump of empty building where Borders once lived. Borders was a giant bookshop that also sold CDs, magazines, coffee and toys. You were welcome to browse, to take your time and relax.
It closed down three years ago, not least because of the number of people who enjoyed the browsing bit, but then bought their books and CDs off the internet.
Its closure was a great pity. Bookshops are good for the soul of the town, and Watford now doesn't have one.
But the real worry is that Borders has been replaced by – nothing.
For years, the building has stood empty, its former name still visible.
Should we worry about this? Hard to tell. It’s not easy renting out a huge retail space at the best of times, and the past few years have been famously tough.
But most other retail parks in the area seem to have coped pretty well, filling spaces when the likes of Comet have disappeared.
With all the investment that’s been put into the nearby Tesco, you’d imagine it would be a good place to position a big supershop, to make the most of the growing number of customers coming to the area.
Sure, Tesco won’t exactly hurry its own customers out the door and point them up the road, but marketing men earn their money from persuading us to leave one shop and go to another.
So maybe it’s that infernal car park. Maybe potential investors visit at the weekend and decide that if it’s too much like hard work for them to find a space, then their customers will think the same.
I wouldn’t blame them. And for the sake of Watford, and its retail economy, I hope someone comes up with a solution before long.
If we’ve been waiting too long for the Borders building to be filled, it pales into insignificance compared to the wait for Watford Football Club to come up with a heartfelt plan to replace the dilapidated East Stand. And yet now, it seems work really is about to get under way.
The Pozzos have seen average crowds shoot above 15,000 and have responded by announcing plans for a new stand.
The contractor is a company called GL Events, which describes itself as a specialist in temporary structures.
Even though the club describes GL as “stadium construction specialists”, I can’t find much evidence of it building many permanent facilities.
Look around its website, though, and you can see the buildings GL put up for the Olympic Games – which have come down – and the stand the company built for a French rugby team, which hasn’t.
I suspect it gives you a flavour of what the new East stand will be – solid, functional and architecturally unspectacular.
If that’s right, then that seems completely sensible.
Previous owners have baulked at replacing the stand because you couldn’t guarantee getting your money back on the sizeable cost of building a stand.
So you can’t blame the Pozzos for going for a low-cost option, not least with the carrot of having it up and running before the end of the season.
It’s about building for the future, but avoiding recklessness, a mistake Hornets fans still call the Vialli Syndrome.
I reckon Watford could aim at selling out a 20,000 – or even 22,000 – capacity Vicarage Road if they reached the Premier League. But if I was signing the Pozzos’ cheques, I wouldn't dream beyond that. Not yet, anyway.
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