A street repair site on South Esplanade in Helsinki on 15 May 2023. Such large infrastructure projects have an impact on the way people move in the city centre, potentially affecting the customer flows of various shops. (Emmi Korhonen – Lehtikuva)

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THREE Alepa grocery shops have recently closed or are about to close their doors in downtown Helsinki, Helsingin Sanomat reported on Wednesday.

The grocery shops that closed their doors earlier this month were located in Forum and on Iso Roobertinkatu. Alepa Eliel at Helsinki Central Station, meanwhile, is set to cease operations next month.

Mika Heikkinen, the director in charge of the chain at HOK Elanto, said the retail co-operative decided not to renew the shops’ lease agreements because the coronavirus pandemic has lead to a drop in the number of people visiting the city centre and a change in how people move from one place to another.

“There have been big changes downtown,” he said to Helsingin Sanomat.

News of the closures came as a surprise to Marja-Leena Rinkineva, the director of economic development at the City of Helsinki.

“Shops are living in constant change, looking for their optimal location and opening hours,” she commented to Helsingin Sanomat on Wednesday. “But it does sound very unfortunate – there’s no denying that. The closures are unfortunate if they’re related to a decline in customer volumes.”

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Rinkineva said she was surprised by the news particularly because she had detected some signs of rejuvenation in downtown areas earlier this year, despite the continuing increase in the number of vacant commercial properties. Although there is no exact data on the number of vacancies, last year it was estimated that 15.5 per cent of commercial properties in the centremost blocks were without a tenant.

One possible factor complicating the revitalisation is the road repair projects that are underway at the city centre, including the large projects on Esplanade and Mannerheimintie, according to Rinkineva.

“They affect how people move,” she said.

The departure of the small grocery shops has re-kindled discussion about the declining vitality of central Helsinki. Local policy makers explained the phenomenon with the recent increase in remote and hybrid forms of work, as well as with the popularity of shopping centres built on the edges of the city centre, such as Redi and Mall of Tripla.

Elisa Gebhard (SDP), a member of both the city council and board of Helsinki, told Helsingin Sanomat that the nearby shopping centres have reduced the need for people to visit the city centre. “The core question is: what brings people to the centre,” she said.

She agreed that changes in the mobility habits of people explains the closure of the centrally located grocery shops. “Unfortunately, this reflects where people move. Shops are located wherever people are.”

Gebhard identified residential construction as a key means to preserving the appeal and vitality of the city centre. “It’s generally important that we build apartments here determinedly. […] That’s one way to bring customers to grocery shops.”

Councillor Otto Meri (NCP) identified the increase in remote work as the root cause of the withering of downtown Helsinki. He viewed that it is important to attract both new residents and tourists to the area by creating additional pull factors because tourists, in particular, add to the potential purchasing power in the city centre.

“Vitality doesn’t stem from locals buying milk or meat cuts, but from people looking for unique experiences, services and come here to enjoy themselves,” he argued.

Gebhard agreed, estimating that a city centre that offers experiences and allows people to enjoy themselves is attractive also to those without any actual errands.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT

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