THE first details have emerged of how a key Basingstoke shopping centre could look after a multi-million-pound makeover.
The Malls is a gateway to the town, but it is in need of a major revamp to update its tired-looking facade.
A landmark building on Alençon Link, at one end of The Malls, is now in the pipeline to create a new entrance that will welcome visitors coming by train or bus. Plans have also been unveiled to remove the canopies that create an "oppressive atmosphere" in The Malls.
Under the proposals, Castle Square would become a focal point for the centre and brickwork would be covered in cladding to enhance the look of the complex, which is home to big high street stores including Primark, Boots, Sainsbury's and Wilkinson.
New council leader Councillor Andrew Finney told The Gazette: "The sorts of improvements being put forward would be cost-effective but deliver some real improvements - both from a visual point of view and a user point of view - to The Malls.
"I'm particularly excited by the prospect of creating a gateway entrance to Basingstoke, so when you get off the bus or the train, it's obvious you are at the entrance to Basingstoke."
The new gateway building, probably incorporating a café or retail units, would not be a landmark in the sense of a tower, but a lower building that people in the town would know about, said Cllr Finney.
He said refurbishing The Malls would provide the first "stakes in the ground" that showed people the visible results of the council's long-term ambitions to refresh the town centre through its Central Area Vision.
While £5.7million is set aside for refurbishing The Malls, cost concerns mean the proposals in a paper prepared for next Tuesday's borough Cabinet meeting appear to pull away from some of the more radical elements suggested when the facelift was last discussed.
Former council leader Cllr John Leek was keen for a lift shaft near The Anvil to be removed, but the report states: "Detailed investigations have shown that The Anvil lift tower houses critical service routes for the whole centre, which would be very challenging, and disproportionately expensive, to divert elsewhere."
Engineering concerns rule out enclosing the whole centre, altering the tunnel outside Sainsbury's or installing escalators to link the car park and Castle Square, the report states.
The report identifies The Malls' current problems as having "an oppressive atmosphere", being uninviting, uninspiring and outdated.
Cladding, such as timber, glazing, murals, public art and advertising could make shops look individual, interesting and built at different times, it states.
The report continues: "While this is how streets were traditionally created, this will, of course, be done as one co-ordinated exercise and could create a crisp, modern and contemporary look."
Cllr Finney said bringing in advertising did not mean turning The Malls into Piccadilly Circus, because it would be promoting Basingstoke and The Malls as a location. "It's adverting place, not product," he said.
Labour councillor Paul Harvey said he would ask the Cabinet whether the proposals amount to the regeneration The Malls really needs.
He said: "Are we talking about a facelift or a serious regeneration? If it's a lick of paint, it's a very expensive lick of paint."
Property company St Modwen has a stake in The Malls through complex leasing agreements and takes 65 per cent of the rental income, while the council takes the rest. Cllr Harvey is concerned that St Modwen is not properly involved in the project.
"We seriously need someone to get St Modwen to take part with the council," he said.
Cllr Finney indicated St Modwen bosses are unwilling to invest the funds needed for a major rebuild of the centre. He said: "They're content to hold the investment in The Malls in the form they currently hold it and they are generating the level of return they would want from The Malls in the current climate." But he added: "We are confident we are going to get more out of them."
In a statement, Paul Arnold, senior development manager at St Modwen, said: "We are aware of the proposals, and support them in principle, but will agree the details with them (the council) in due course."
If Cabinet lets council officers take the proposals forward, they are likely to return with more detailed plans at the start of 2009, with a view to building work commencing at the end of that year.