By Pui-Guan Man, News Editor at EG
24 April 2021

Rethinking over-spaced flagships

As some of the biggest names in retail disappear from our towns and cities, they are leaving behind the conundrum of how to fill swathes of empty space. Pui-Guan Man looks at some of the new uses to which former shops and department stores are being put around the country

Pandemic-hit retail giants Debenhams and Arcadia dealt a 16.6m sq ft blow to high streets, shopping centres and out-of-town locations when they collapsed, while 16 John Lewis store closures in the past year have left landlords of more than 1.4m sq ft in the lurch.

Where John Lewis is concerned, half of Tamworth’s John Lewis At Home store will be replaced by discount grocer Aldi, while the next steps for the Sheffield and Birmingham Grand Central flagships are still being hotly debated.

Finding ways to fill such sizeable pockets of empty space will require major reinvention from landlords and developers. But where the brush is cleared away, new shoots can grow – and some transformations are already starting to take root. Here, EG picks out a selection of new uses that have been lined up for spaces once occupied by former retail heavyweights.

…student digs

In Gloucester, the 215,300 sq ft Debenhams store at Kings Square has been given the green light for conversion into a five-storey student campus. The University of Gloucestershire, which bought the property last month, is considering which of its higher education courses could be based at the location – nursing and allied health are among the options. The first phase of the project could open as early as September 2023.

Pre-application plans have also been submitted to turn the 112,000 sq ft Briggate department store in Leeds into 124 student flats and dual-occupancy studios. Orchard Street Investment Management, its owner, has drawn up proposals to repurpose the bottom three floors for flexible commercial uses and add the student accommodation to the upper levels. A courtyard space would sit in the centre.


The Crown Estate’s joint venture with Nuveen in Exeter has lodged plans to convert the top floor of the fourstorey, 130,000 sq ft Debenhams in the Princesshay shopping quarter into a four-screen boutique cinema. The redevelopment would also include a seating area and bar, with tenants sought for the lower levels. Montagu Evans, acting on behalf of the landlords, said a cinema provided “an opportunity to improve the vitality and viability of the city centre” by “introducing a quality, complementary use during the day and into the evening”.


An indoor mini-golf course is set to replace Hammerson and ADIA’s 130,000 sq ft House of Fraser store at The Oracle in Reading, with operator Puttshack lodging a licensing application for selling alcohol, showing films and hosting live music and dance performances as well as indoor sports events. It comes after the council approved plans for a bowling alley, mini-golf, a food hall and shops at the location last year.


Plans to transform the iconic Beatties store in Wolverhampton into a 306-flat scheme have been given the go-ahead. Investor SSYS Beatties, which acquired the building last year, will also retain around 73,000 sq ft of retail space as well as some 17,000 sq ft of offices. House of Fraser has relocated in part to a former Debenhams at the Mander Shopping Centre, where it occupies 34,000 sq ft under the Frasers brand. This sits within a 60,000 sq ft multi-brand flagship housing the rest of Frasers’ brands, including Sports Direct and Flannels.


Investec has filed an application to redevelop Manchester’s landmark Kendals department store and the adjoining Fraser Building into some 565,000 sq ft of new offices. The Kendals store would offer around 249,000 sq ft of office space, with about 100,000 sq ft of the lower levels retained for retail. At the same time, it seeks to demolish the Fraser Building to provide circa 316,000 sq ft of offices and 54,000 sq ft of retail and leisure, across 14 storeys. If plans proceed, works are expected to be completed by 2025.


After buying Exeter’s empty 70,000 sq ft House of Fraser store last year, Prydis secured planning consent for a 104-bedroom hotel as part of a franchise agreement with InterContinental Hotels Group. The hotel, which will operate under the Hotel Indigo brand, will include a spa and speakeasy-style bar.


Sainsbury’s has submitted proposals to Harrogate Borough Council for a Sainsbury’s Local store at a vacant Topshop/Topman and Miss Selfridge hybrid store in the town centre. The location, at 33-37 Cambridge Street, has been empty for more than three years. The supermarket giant is seeking to divide the space into three shops, with two smaller units let to other retailers. “The proposals will enable the reoccupation of the vacant unit, at a time when investment in city centres should be encouraged,” said consultants at WSP on behalf of Sainsbury’s.

…vaccination centre

The former Topshop store at Dunmail Park Shopping Centre in Workington, run by J Dixon & Son, has become a Pharmacy2U Covid-19 vaccination centre. Gordon Osbaldestin, company surveyor at J Dixon, told local newspapers that the company has agreed to lease the space to the pharmacy operator for a year. The clinic is staffed by former Arcadia employees.

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