In six months time, on a precise date in mid-September yet to be confirmed, London's second Westfield shopping centre will open. You might think their Shepherd's Bush mall is huge, but that's nothing compared to what's coming out east. Westfield Stratford City will be Europe's largest urban shopping centre, transforming some old railway sidings into nearly 2 billionsquare feet of retail opportunity. It's going to change East London in ways that East London hasn't yet begun to recognise. Make the best of half a year of normality while you can.
Westfield's already structurally complete, near enough. Stand outside Stratford station and the shiny mall looms large across the tracks. A huge windowless box designed for maximum merchandising. A tall office block awaiting pioneering tenants. Beaten gold-effect panels to glitz the whole thing up a bit. And somewhere beyond the façade is a central curved thoroughfare lined with three storeys of not-yet-fitted-out shops. All still wholly inaccessible, but when the footbridge finally opens and the shopping hordes swarm in they'll become an integral part of the fabric of local life.
Coming soon to Stratford E20 - a huge John Lewis, a mega Marks and Spencer and a whopping Waitrose. Three less likely retail brands its hard to imagine in the neighbouring shopping centre across the tracks. Stratford's existing mall (pictured) is no luxury customer magnet, not by any stretch of the imagination. Goods and prices are aimed low, because the local clientèle don't have much surplus cash to splash around. They need a 99p Store, not a Louis Vuitton, and a Wilkinson, not a Jimmy Choo. Many Newham residents are likely to wander round Westfield once for the experience, then return to the old mall to buy the stuff they need at prices they can afford. Or so the old mall hopes.
Westfield's core audience will be coming in from further out - not getting the bus from Plaistow but catching the train from North London or driving in from Essex. The planned catchment area covers approximately 4 million people, who up until now have had to journey to Brent Cross or Lakeside for the supermall experience. Westfield fills a geographic hole where no John Lewis, Marks and Spencer or Waitrose currently exist. Throw in a 14 screen cinema, several restaurants and (heaven protect us) a casino, and the plan is to create an irresistible day out for non-local non-poor people. Even mid-depression, there are still plenty of aspirational folk with money to burn.
A series of new roads has already been built to cope with the expected onslaught of passenger traffic. Stratford High Street has been upgraded, with a new multi-lane junction at the foot of Warton Road. This turn-off used to be a completebackwater, but soon it'll be the gateway for Westfield traffic approaching from Bow and the west. To the east, AngelLane has been completely remodelled and now crosses the main railway line with a kink. A brand new set of traffic lights has been installed, currently halting vehicles at red for no good reason, but guarding what'll be the main entrance to the car parks once the barriers come down. Expect long queues, but not quite yet.
With six months to go, Westfield Stratford City is already an integral part of the local environment. It's visible from the town centre, it's visible from Leyton Road, it's even visible from the far side of the Olympic Park. Soon it'll be the driving economic force round these parts, upping Stratford from a one-HMV town to a luxury brand destination. Then the gleaming gold of Westfield's exterior will gradually disappear behind a curtain of office blocks and post-2012 housing projects, as business and the upwardly-mobile choose to move into a neighbourhood they'd never previously have considered. Within a decade it may be hard to remember the pre-Westfield era, when Stratford existed only to the south of its railway station. Let's hope the balance doesn't tip too far the other way.