Can Sheffield take its city centre beyond retail?

Peace Gardens in SummerSheffield’s city centre is a sorry sight after plans for its redevelopment fell apart during the recession. The city now has the choice of another top-down retail scheme or opting for a slower, community-led approach, says Nigel Slack

The heart of Sheffield city centre has been a sad sight for years now. Plans for regeneration came crashing down with the financial crisis of 2008. The scheme, led by major developer Hammerson, fell apart and the council has now taken responsibility for the land within the city centre. After considerable delay, there was promise that a new vision for the area might be generated and that something would finally change.

There were many concerns and complaints about the original plans and their impact on the city centre’s heritage buildings. These concerns remain and the council’s recent record on heritage sites has undermined a previously enviable reputation in protecting and preserving the city’s history and heritage.

Despite a great record with locations like Manor Lodge, Bishops House and the redevelopment of areas like Kelham Island, the demolition of part of the Jessop Hospital for the university and the approval of the demolition of the 200-year-old parade of shops on Devonshire Street has knocked the shine off the council’s previous efforts.

Is it then time to look for a different approach to redevelopment?

Is top-down regeneration of our city centre the best solution?

We now find ourselves in a very unusual position. The area identified for the new Retail Quarter runs from Barkers Pool to the top of the Moor and from Pinstone Street to Trafalgar Street. For the first time in who knows how long, a significant portion of the city centre is entirely owned by Sheffield Council, bought using compulsory purchase orders for almost £500m. Is it then time to look for a different approach to redevelopment? Is top-down regeneration of our city centre the best solution? Some people think so, others don’t. Here are the contenders.

First, the council’s preferred option is a single developer strategy, headed by a major development partner delivering a complete scheme, from roads and buildings to new ‘public’ spaces such as squares, precincts and green spaces, strongly favouring major retail and with new office and residential space in the mix. Some heritage buildings are secure, but others, the lower end of Cambridge Street, are to be lost. John Lewis gets a new store near Charter Square and will anchor an extension of Fargate from there to the town hall.

Concerns aren’t just about the demolition of buildings like Henry’s and the loss of the iconic 60s modernism of John Lewis (or Cole Brothers to us in Sheffield), but the potential that heritage buildings could fall victim to ‘façadism’, retaining the exterior without any internal respect for it. A single developer might also tend toward a uniform design aesthetic, where anything above the shop front is bland and uninspiring. The tendency that city centres begin to resemble each other is natural for developers with an eye to profit.

The main competitors as the council’s development partner have now been announced, but the final decision is delayed for six months. Two of them have strong heritage projects in their backgrounds. It’s possible that, with the right developer, heritage buildings in the city may be respected, but would they win out over big profit?

Second, we have plans put forward by the Sheffield Retail Development Group (SRDG), led by local businessman, John Crowther. This proposal is similar to the council’s in scale and method of delivery, but emphasises retention of heritage buildings within the redevelopment area, particularly Cambridge Street and John Lewis, and the creation of new cultural venues, such as cinemas and an ‘arts centre/symphony hall’. It’s their intention that this should be solely ‘market funded’ and no risk to the local treasury.

Successful cities are the product

of organic growth and slower development

Many are keen to see the retention of the current street plan and an emphasis on saving the older buildings, enhanced by the attractive proposition of a new cultural venue or two within the city centre. SRDG say this proposal is fully funded and that partners are in place to deliver the scheme, but their reticence in giving detail has left many uncertain. Their architects, Chapman Taylor (Shanghai, Qatar and Trinity Leeds), have a penchant for large, net-like street roofing and are hardcore modernists, so fears for the internal layout of heritage buildings may still be relevant.

Finally, there is the proposition considered the outsider in this story – a view from Rupert Wood, local entrepreneur (APG Gallery) and, unusually in these discussions, a city centre resident. Rupert wants a plan that recognises that successful cities are the product of organic growth and slower development, favouring an incremental approach that would enable smaller development opportunities ideal for local developers and architects to respond to imaginatively. He also proposes that community land trusts – non-profit corporations that develop and steward community assets on our behalf – be used to secure ownership of certain heritage properties and preserve them for the city, making Sheffield distinct from other cities – a living, real city of active neighbourhoods.

As an individual, Rupert may be expected to have little chance with his proposition for a better city, but he is doing the work. He’s sought views from a wide range of stakeholders, architects, local designers and city centre residents. He’s also voicing concerns about the dangers of another crash on a major developer and the chances of another Hammerson debacle.

Could a scaled approach of smaller developers working on portions of the scheme work? Perhaps this idea’s time has come.

The reason I say this is less to do with the schemes themselves and more with the impact of the schemes on the city. The two main proposals for the Retail Quarter are heavily reliant on strong consumer demand and resulting strong demand for unit space. There is considerable doubt about this. Filled with shiny new stores at higher rents than currently achievable, the quarter could lead to a divisive split in how people shop. Shops inside the Retail Quarter for people with money and shops outside it catering for those with little or no disposable income.

Then there’s the ongoing downturn in retail. August saw the worst retail performance on the high street since 2008, four consecutive months where sales have fallen. The new scheme might end up with as many empty stores as today.

There are other impacts of these schemes too. I mentioned earlier that in preparation for this redevelopment the city centre now belongs to the council. Two schemes rely on returning this land to private hands. This has consequences. Public land operates under the law and local bylaws, but can be used freely by the public without other restrictions. If this land becomes private – as with the squares at the back of the St Paul’s Tower near the Peace Gardens, for example – the owner can impose restrictions on our free use of that land – restrictions on the right to protest, skateboard, busk or anything considered ‘anti-social’. At the corner by Cafe Rouge, there is a small plaque in the pavement that tells you so – not that many people have noticed it, never mind read it.

My experience of private companies delivering public services has taught me that such use removes the right of the public to transparency and democratic accountability. Do we want the roads, pavements and squares of the Retail Quarter to be private spaces, where we are only allowed if we conform to the right behaviours?

There’s a lot to think about, but the difference between the schemes highlights one fundamental question: can a plan founded on a top-down, retail-based regeneration give us the city centre we want? What do you think?

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