Renewed energy is building at the bottom of Wenceslas Square, and it’s largely the result of reconstruction work that finished roughly a year ago. The design for the square’s new look was drawn up by the architect Jakub Cigler back in 2005, but the typical opponents of change blocked its implementation for nearly two decades. Jan Kotrbaček, a partner at Cushman & Wakefield, says that with life returning to that part of the square, retailers are taking notice. “The lower part of Vaclavské nám. prior to Covid was preferred by many retailers as being an unattractive location, no matter how attractive assets that were proposed to them” says Kotrbáček. “They were refusing because they didn’t like the environment.”
“But since the revitalization was finished, we can see a dramatic change in the approach of tenants and visitors to the square. They see that the environment is very representative, and that people aren’t just passing though — they’re gathering there,” he says. “We’re aware of a lot of serious interest now.” In fact, Kotrbáček’s interest in the topic goes a good deal deeper than downtown retail space. He’s the chairman of the Prague New Town Association (Sdružení Nového Města pražského), an important grouping of Prague 1 building owners that pushes for improvements to the downtown area.
He points out that for decades, parked cars and a steady stream of traffic dominated the bottom half of Wenceslas Sq., crowding out pedestrians and making them feel unsafe. The new design put pedestrians first, outlawed all but necessary vehicle traffic, added new trees, benches, and even a fountain. People can now walk down the square without looking over their shoulder. Children can let go of their parents’ hands. Predictably, life has returned to the space and it’s become – if not an outright destination – an attractive place to spend some time.
It’s had an immediate commercial effect. “There were retailers who in the past were only interested in Na Přikopě, but now they see Wenceslas square as an equivalent option,” says Kotrbáček. While Na Příkopě is Central Europe’s best mass-market and premium high street, it’s not big enough to meet the volume of demand from retailers, he points out. By contrast, at 850 meters long, Wenceslas Square offers up to 70,000 sqm of retail space. Once the revitalization of the upper portion of the square is completed (including the installation of tram lines running down the square from Vinohradska street) it will be even more attractive location. I can see already that Na Příkopě and lower Wenceslas are becoming equally attractive destination.”
Sprucing up the square is a great start, says Kotrbáček, but it’s crucial that the city ensure the space is properly maintained and looked after. “The center of the city is a key asset for the Czech Republic,” he says. “We should work hard on learning the profile of our customers, to understand who the users are. Concentrating on quality rather than quantity goes hand in hand with better hospitality facilities and creating a better environment for visitors.”
In the most recent Cushman & Wakefield Main Streets Across the World study, Prague’s Pařížská street ranked 19th in the world in terms of rents, and 11th in Europe. It’s an impressive result, but it doesn’t mean there’s no work to be done. “You have to maintain and develop all the time,” says Kotrbáček. “Prague as a municipality can invest in the environment and support private stakeholders, in order to be able to create and maintain their assets in a way that will be attractive for international players, meaning retailers and office tenants.”
The remodeling of ‘Lower Vaclavak’ comes at a time of rapid change on the highstreet retail sector. For years, limited supply and a stable economic environment allowed brands to rent more space than they actually needed. “Brands use to be able to hold onto their locations for reasons of status, even if they weren’t so profitable,” says Kotrbáček. “These days, everyone is looking at efficiency, forcing some brands to leave prime locations and optimize if their concept doesn’t work where they are.
At 5,500 sqm, Half Price’s arrival downtown perfectly illustrates the changes now taking place. The space was too big for C&A, which already had a perfectly good location higher up the square. The fact the retailer left allowed HalfPrice to move in, taking advantage of the square’s new atmosphere following reconstruction.
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