For two decades, Steven Wyatt was in a cycle of drug addiction and rehab. In 2006, during a stint at a recovery center, he learned how to restore furniture, a skill that led him to an unexpected place: running his own store in Poole, a coastal town in southwest England.
Mr. Wyatt, 46, is among a handful of beneficiaries of an unusual experiment in real estate and urban renewal. His store, Restored Retro, is one of 10 businesses that were given two years of free rent for an empty storefront on a small shopping street in Poole called Kingland Crescent.
The offer came from the property’s owner, Legal & General Investment Management, Britain’s largest asset manager, which had been struggling to revive a near-derelict shopping street next to a mall, in an uneasy economy still reeling from the pandemic.
“It’s been a massive learning curve for them and for us,” Mr. Wyatt said. “I’ve never had this much responsibility.”
The rent-free period, which ended in April, not only has changed the lives of Mr. Wyatt and several other small-business owners, but it has also transformed the street, which now has a constant flow of foot traffic in an area that many locals used to avoid. Even the adjacent shopping mall is bucking the national trend, with more visitors now than in 2019.
Half of the original 10 businesses offered space on Kingland Crescent are still there, and those that left were quickly replaced by new local businesses ready to pay rent. There is a sense that momentum is building in Poole’s transformation.
“Poole is becoming a destination again,” Mr. Wyatt said.
Poole is just a couple of miles away from some of the most expensive coastal real estate in the country, but its town center was stuck in a rut. The mall had swaths of dark, empty spaces, and a stretch of the town’s larger shopping district was trapped in the past, with old brands long forgotten in more vibrant places.
The shake-up of Kingland Crescent began during pandemic lockdowns as Britons bemoaned the death of their beloved high streets, which are comparable to American main streets. Their survival was a priority for the government, which announced billions in grants to revitalize them.
But lately, the government has been consumed by other crises, including the highest inflation rates in four decades, rapidly rising food prices and soaring mortgage payments, which are amounting to a deep cost-of-living crisis.
“Retail in England has been in trouble for a long time,” said Anthony Breach, a senior analyst at Centre for Cities, a think tank. Even before the pandemic, “there was an oversupply of retail space, particularly in a places with less successful economies.”
Many high streets needed major transformation if they hoped to survive the shift away from in-store shopping at big national retail chains that dominated them, he added.
Bournemouth, a larger town a few miles east of Poole, has also experienced store closures.Credit…Photographs by Alex Atack for The New York Times
There are encouraging signs of progress. Fewer stores closed in Britain last year than the year before, and some empty department stores have found new life as leisure centers with go-karting or planned residences. Foot traffic on high streets across the country was about 5 percent higher in June compared with last year, though it’s still below prepandemic levels.
“There are high streets that are decimated,” said Mark Robinson, chair of the High Streets Task Force, a body set up by the government. “Likewise, there are places that are still going to get worse. But on balance, we can really look to having been through the worst, and I genuinely don’t think people are talking about the death of the high street anymore.”
High streets across the country are facing diverging fortunes. Poole has improved after the risk taken by Legal & General Investment Management, which owns about 36 billion pounds (about $43 billion) in homes, retail, offices and other real estate. Other small high streets have benefited from residents staying closer to home to work and socialize.
But many others, especially in larger towns or cities, are still blighted by empty department stores and shuttered outposts of national brands.
The differences are apparent in Bournemouth, a larger town a few miles east of Poole with a big student population. Economic prosperity varies widely across the region, but the median income in Bournemouth, Poole and their surrounding towns was about 7 percent below the national average, according to official statistics from 2022.
Three department stores in Bournemouth closed, and the exit of big retail chains has left several streets with empty storefronts. Two years ago, the town had ambitious plans to fill the vacant space, but they have been slow to materialize. The main success has been the reopening of a former Debenhams department store as Bobby’s, which has a beauty hall, a cafe and stalls for local businesses.
Four other large sites (two former department stores and two cinemas) are in the early stages of redevelopment, said Paul Kinvig, who manages the town’s business improvement district.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that there are plans for all of them, but there’s a pace issue,” he said.
Progress is slow in Bournemouth, but in Poole, Kingland Crescent has become a nexus for independent businesses. The overhaul provided a dose of modernization with the arrival of an Instagram-friendly plant store, a coffee shop with a roastery in the back and a gin bar, among others. And the free rent allowed them to grow quickly.
For the landlord, the program was a bet on the long term. Providing free rent to entrepreneurs, even those with no formal business experience, has been part of its strategy to make its properties more resilient to an ever-changing economy and less reliant on big national retailers, said Matt Soffair, who leads retail research at Legal & General Investment Management.
“We’re not just doing this to do a nice thing for the people of Poole,” he added. “We are also doing this because we do believe that in the long term, all these initiatives will create cash flow.”
Before moving to Kingland Crescent, Mr. Wyatt’s furniture restoration business was a shoestring operation. At times, he painted furniture in his garden and sold the pieces on eBay.
Since opening his shop, he has sold more than a thousand pieces. He specializes in restoring midcentury items, such as a sideboard by the Danish designer Ib Kofod-Larsen and a dressing table by the British design company Archie Shine. In March, around the time rent payments began, Mr. Wyatt doubled the store’s footprint, taking over a vacant space next door in collaboration with Jay Blades, star of the BBC series “The Repair Shop.”
Three doors down from Mr. Wyatt is Wild Roots, a plant store owned by Hope Dean, 29, who was laid off from her events management job early in the pandemic. A few months later, she secured a space on Kingland Crescent, which is now a calming haven of greenery. She employs six people, and her company has three branches: the retail store, a plant design service for businesses and plant care services.
“It feels like a proper business now,” Ms. Dean said.
A sleek record store that hosts live music nights, a jeweler with pieces delicately carved from titanium and a clothing shop that previously had only an online presence have recently joined the lineup. They each have to pay rent, but several said they were still getting a good deal.
Changes on Kingland Crescent have flowed into the neighboring shopping center that Legal & General also owns. On the desolate upper floors of the mall, the landlord put in a diagnostics center run by the National Health Service, an adult education center and a co-working space. Market stalls are open several days a week on the ground floor, along with a space for free events and services, such as day care, craft fairs and historical exhibits.
But the tenants of Kingland Crescent still face challenges. Their leases are up for renewal in about a year, meaning their futures are uncertain. Foot traffic can be unpredictable, tenants say, and there is little other nightlife, a problem for the bar.
“Poole was our pilot,” said Denizer Ibrahim, who leads the retail strategy at Legal & General. After two years of gathering data, the landlord is thinking about what worked and can be replicated elsewhere. But it does not expect to offer free rent again.
The strategy, Mr. Ibrahim said, is to end the “cookie cutter” high streets that were the norm a few years ago, and instead curate a space with a diverse mix of global and local companies in retail and other services.
That range of use for retail spaces “would have never been even spoken about if it wasn’t for Kingland,” he said.