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Why department store redevelopment could mean something for everybody

The fight to save the Oxford Street Marks & Spencer flagship dramatises the fate of department stores across the country. Demolition is not the only answer.

19/01/2023 5 min read
Arding Hobbs

Words: David Thame

It is old, it is big, it is a jumble of buildings, it doesn’t fit with its net zero carbon objectives: according to Marks & Spencer there is no option but to demolish its 160,000 sq ft London Marble Arch store.

“Three poorly connected buildings, a warren of dense structures and misaligned floors, not fit for today’s modern customers or staff,” will not be missed, M&S operations director Sacha Berendji said last month. There are plenty who disagree about the fate of the landmark building, as a recent public inquiry heard.

The M&S dispute dramatizes a dilemma faced by every UK high street, as landlords seek a future for the UK’s major department stores. Once the majestic flagships of city centre retail, they are now increasingly regarded as hulks in need of repurposing, with offices a popular solution in city centres. In smaller towns like Lichfield, leisure uses predominate with the high street’s former Debenhams about to morph into a boutique cinema.

But does a problem have to turn into a crisis? According to those with skin in the game, the difficulties of recycling the large, poorly lit floorplates typical of ex- department store space can be overcome. Thoughtful design, innovation and patience are required. To see how it can be done, take a look at Clapham.

Investor W.RE acquired the Grade II listed Arding & Hobbs department store building in November 2018. It has been part of Battersea’s heritage since 1910, as one of South London’s first purpose-built department stores. Any rail passenger out of Waterloo will have it engraved on their memory.

Today’s 160,000 sq ft refurbishment plan by Stiff + Trevillion seeks to create flexible retail and leisure uses across the ground and basement floors, and introduce 113,000 sq ft of modern office space to the upper floors, with a new rooftop extension to crown the building. This combination of uses will bring new life to the building and an economic boost to Clapham Junction town centre while restoring the heritage of this iconic landmark. Completion is scheduled for mid-2023.

“Built for a different purpose in a different era, department stores are interesting from an architectural standpoint,” says chief executive Sascha Lewin. “They are not standard boxes and have unusual heights and depths. Most of the old department stores have deep floorplates meaning they lack natural light, and this is one of the main challenges for a retrofit. It is also a part of the charm of these buildings.”

Luckily for the project team most of the historical features of the A&H building are still present, including a stained glass dome, beautiful but boxed-up arch windows, and a glass barrel roof discovered hidden under a thick layerof paint. So much the better, says Lewin. “We see that occupiers want to be in buildings that inspire, connect with history, connect with community and offer something unique – Arding & Hobbs already does it,” he says.

Of course, there are other approaches, some of them radical. Behind the practical problem of squeezing new uses into old spaces sits a bigger conceptual issue: how to make department stores fit for today. Woods Bagot’s principal and retail sector lead, Peter O’Donnell, has been thinking hard about how to do it. The result is the cutely-named Department of Fitness.

“The Department of Fitness was broadly based on the department store typology and typical size of the likes of House of Fraser on Oxford Street, with multiple levels of interaction, concession and programme,” he explains.

“The ingredient of the concept was more important as it aspired to create a destination space with fitness and wellbeing in mind and one that created a healthy stage between fitness operators and apparel brands across floors – with a central heart activated by food and beverage, town halls and work club environments, opened up to cater for both private and public engagement. With this in mind, size isn’t necessarily important, but a sweet spot needed to create enough space for the ingredients.”

Changes to the planning regime – not least the introduction of Use Class E which embraces most commercial uses – smooths the path to some potentially dramatic rethinks of former department store acreage. But as O’Donnell points out, planners don’t need to get heavily involved. “The intention behind The Department of Fitness would focus more on internal programme and refurbishment, so planning enhancements would aim to be limited,” he says.

Preserving the building’s unique look will require a balance to be struck, including careful curation of potential operators and tenants and a keen eye on the design match. “‘E By Equinox’ St James’s St is a great example of a high end fitness brand within a ‘Building of Merit’ within a conservation area,” he says, pointing to this kind of occupier concept that can work.

Nobody expects department stores to go quietly: these buildings were designed to be conspicuous, and their re- use will inevitably attract attention, some of it critical. But an increasingly thoughtful and engaged design community can make the transition smoother – and the future of these former high street monoliths a good deal brighter.

The projects to watch

Marks & Spencer are not alone as once iconic department stores reinvent themselves with workspace and office uses proving the most popular solutions.

Just a few hundred metres from M&S, John Lewis has been nurturing plans to convert 300,000 sq ft of its 650,000 sq ft Oxford Street flagship into offices. When the scheme was hatched in 2020 it looked like a money spinner, perhaps generating £25m a year rent and a £750m plus asset. A joint venture between Texas-based Hines and Korea’s National Pension Services has been tipped as the likely developer, and a sign that international money is still hot for ex-department store real estate.

Step a bit further down Oxford Street and you discover Public Properties Establishment planning to convert 145,000 sq ft of the House of Fraser department store at 318 Oxford Street to offices (upper floors only, with an additional floor added), and at Debenhams and Fenwicks Bond Street office conversion is also on the cards.

In Manchester both the former Debenhams on Market Street and the House of Fraser/Kendals store on Deansgate are slated for large-scale office refurbishment. Debenhams will gain extra floors taking the total to 500,000 sq ft, under plans for new German owners AM Alpha, whilst Investec plan a 540,000 sq ft office redevelopment at Kendals.

Birmingham will also see large-scale department store redevelopment. Legal & General plan a workspace and hospitality-lead rethink on the 500,000 sq ft former Rackhams/House of Fraser store.

Reimagining a town centre

Lichfield will get its first dedicated cinema for decades, thanks to the collapse of Debenhams – with a boutique movie complex planned on the site of the former department store in the historic Staffordshire town.

The scheme will see a 35,000 sq ft four-screen cinema attraction created within the former store in Three Spires, formerly the Three Spires Shopping Centre, which is owned and managed by national commercial property and investment company Evolve Estates.

The council has agreed to the formation of a partnership to deliver the cinema and allocated £5,349,000 in funding from the capital programme. Discussions with an operator, which will fit out the cinema element of the building, are progressing.

Evolve, which is part of the M Core group and has a £300 million property portfolio, will invest on a 50/50 basis with Lichfield District Council.

“Lichfield residents have been crying out for more leisure-focused facilities within the town, and this newly planned district will be anchored by the town’s dedicated cinema and other complementary leisure facilities,” said Phil Murphy, head of asset management for Evolve.

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