Redundant shops could house health outlets and leisure facilities to create a dynamic high street. The shelves are laden with opportunities for architects, finds Pamela Buxton
While the decline in bricks and mortar retail had set in well before Covid-19, the pandemic has accelerated the move towards repurposing redundant shopping space for all manner of uses. Newspapers have been awash with headline-grabbing stories such as Heatherwick Studio’s radical vision for a reinvention of Nottingham’s part-demolished Broadmarsh shopping centre, the conversion of various Oxford Street department stores into offices, and plans to knock down the notorious brutalist town centre of Cumbernauld. These projects are just the tip of the iceberg in a sector ripe for reinvention.
There is no shortage of compelling statistics driving such change. The proportion of shopping now carried out online stands at 27.8% according to the Office for National Statistics – down from a pandemic peak of 37.7% but up from 19.4% pre-pandemic. This is expected to rise to 33.5% by 2025 according to the Retail Economics research consultancy.
Vacancy rates were running at 15.6% in February 2022 according to the Local Data Company. Knight Frank’s research charts a decline of 8.4% in all retail capital values between March 2020 and 2022, with rents down by 10.7%. Shopping centres fared the worst, with capital values down 32.6%, and rents falling by 16.1%. Cost of living concerns driven by rising energy prices are likely to dampen any bounce-back in consumer spending from the worst of the pandemic.
‘There is a recognition that there is too much retail floor space and something needs to happen,’ says Stephen Springham, head of retail research at Knight Frank.
Such fundamental market changes potentially bring multiple opportunities for architects, whether facilitating new uses for existing sites such as the 100 or so former Debenhams stores lying vacant around the country, or working with owners and developers on more complex, broader redevelopments of shopping centres and town centres. And as such large-scale repurposing will take time, there are also likely to be plenty of creative ‘meanwhile’ projects around – such as RCKa’s Nourish Hub retail turned community café, training kitchen and workspace, winner of this year’s MacEwen Award.
Hammerson expects as much as one fifth of its portfolio to switch to other uses
Property developer Hammerson said earlier this year that it expects as much as one fifth of its portfolio to switch to other uses, including healthcare, hospitality and workspaces. Meanwhile in Glasgow, Land Securities is working with Glasgow City Council on plans to redevelop its Buchanan Galleries shopping centre, and has recently launched a consultation on what additional new uses could be brought into the 4ha site. A design team is yet to be announced for the project, which is expected to take a decade to realise.
‘Our vision is to replace the existing shopping centre with an exciting new mixed-use urban neighbourhood in the heart of Glasgow city centre, blending world-class shopping with places to work, live and play,’ says managing director, development, David Heaford.
The decline in retail space demand presents opportunities, says David Leech, architectural director of Ryder, whose recent work includes a mixed-use masterplan for the regeneration of a precinct at Yate and a retail-to-park proposal in Stockton (see case study) below.
‘But there always have been [opportunities] because retail has to keep adapting. Lockdown has accelerated the changes that were coming anyway,’ he says, adding that retail centres are increasingly moving away from an approach of inward-facing, anchor stores with malls towards more outward-facing mixed-uses of all varieties.
‘There’s nothing that can’t be explored, although there will be hurdles. It’s about looking outside the box to see what uses could be supported,’ he says.
According to Lisa Finlay, group leader at Heatherwick Studio, we need a ‘mindset shift’ about what activities other than retail can be supported in city centres. This is happening in Nottingham, where the practice is part of the team behind a new concept for the Broadmarsh retail centre (see case study below).
High streets redefined
‘There needs to be a redefinition of why we go to the high street and what it’s for. We’re thinking of it like an eco-system – what kinds of offers will support other businesses?’ she says.
Mono-use retail, she adds, is too limited. A greater variety of offers and uses attuned to the locality is needed, with more variety in unit size and leases and more dynamic programming.
‘If we have a great mix, the high street can do so many things for us, forming connections with people and promoting new opportunities.’
In addition to its work in Nottingham, the practice is carrying out research into the potential to introduce more healthcare uses to city centres. This has also been explored in the Shopping For Health report by iDEA, Carter Jonas, Macmillan Cancer Support and ADP Architecture, which considers the scope for a national strategy to repurpose retail space for this use. It identifies a potential need for 1.25 million m2 of healthcare space such as clinics, and investigates how this might be provided within vacant retail space – citing 1.63 million m² of vacant retail space in English shopping centres alone in early 2021.
Such a repurposing is a ‘huge opportunity,’ according to Hannah Brewster, regional director of ADP, which has produced standardised clinic layouts of 490m² and 1,680m² as part of the report. Not only does this free up space on hospital sites, she says, it makes such services accessible to those who wouldn’t go to a hospital or GP, but might well go to a high street.
ADP is also working on a retail-to-education repurposing with a conversion of the former Debenham’s in Gloucester for university use (see case study below).
The high street can do so much, forming connections and promoting opportunities
Fun in the mall
Leisure is another key new use – Knight Frank identified the sector as one of the few growth areas in shopping centre income in 2018-2021. Recent examples include the conversion of the Debenhams in Wandsworth, south London into the Gravity entertainment venue, including trampolines, pool, darts and bowling alleys.
So what architectural skillset is needed to be best placed to benefit from this market activity?
Ryder’s Leech says that in addition to the usual backbone of technical skills, practices will need an understanding of how existing buildings can adapt and change. When repurposing retail, particular considerations are bringing daylight into often deep floor plates as well as sufficient floor-to-floor heights.
For major city centre retail regenerations in particular, also key will be the placemaking skills required to bring together uses as potentially diverse as older living, co-working and youth-oriented leisure successfully. A track record in handing the complexities of juxtaposing multiple uses across multiple levels would be an asset too.
‘It’s not an easy journey. But in terms of creating authentic town centres with a sense of place, it’s a fantastic opportunity,’ says Adrian Griffiths, group board director of Chapman Taylor, which recently refurbished Upper Precinct in Coventry.
He feels that it is now time for retail owners to reconsider their assets.
‘We’re at a point where values have dropped, and owners of shopping centres can’t do nothing. They have to decide what to do. Some that are outdated and hard to change should be demolished. Others can be partially demolished.’
Move from words to action
Yet according to Knight Frank’s Springham, the will among owners to address market changes is there, it is still manifested more as interest in doing so than in actual activity. Planning is now less of a problem, especially with the recent introduction of the Class E commercial, business and service class, but financing is still a barrier, since many potential new uses yield far less than retail. Yet a more fundamental rethink of the asset will take time and considerable investment. In some cases, the answer may be more local authority involvement in taking over and reimagining shopping centres as part of broader town centre revivals, as is happening in Sutton.
One way or another, with vacancy rates so high, change is afoot.
Read on for case studies
Retail to leisure, Castlegate, Stockton
Designed by disgraced architect John Poulson in the early 1970s, Castlegate shopping centre in Stockton-on-Tees is to undergo the most radical reinvention possible – redevelopment as a 2.5ha riverside park. Provisional designs by Ryder Architecture show a 40m wide land bridge spanning a narrowed and tunnelled Riverside Road to link the new park to the riverside. The park will include a terraced arena, play park, central lawn and pavilion, and waterside food and beverage outlets. The park is part of a broader initiative by Stockton-on-Tees council to consolidate retail into a more compact area – vacancy rates were three times the national average – as well as creating a new attraction that makes the most of the town’s waterfront. Demolition is expected to begin in mid-May with a target completion date of 2025 for the wider waterfront development.
Retail to mixed uses, Broadmarsh, Nottingham
A £500 million vision to reimagine Nottingham’s derelict Broadmarsh shopping centre and surrounding city centre has been drawn up by an advisory group including Heatherwick Studio and socially responsible property developer Stories. The part-demolished centre was handed back to Nottingham City Council when its owner went into administration in 2020. The mixed-use concept includes 3.5ha of public realm including a central green space and retention of the building’s frame would be repurposed under the themes of play, performance and food. Additional uses to ground floor retail include offices, leisure, homes and hospitality.
‘We need to bring in a framework that allows many uses to co-exist and that reflects the city,’ says Heatherwick Studio’s Lisa Finlay.
The City Council is working to develop a masterplan with the advisory group and secure investment. The concept is expected to take 10 years to deliver.
Retail to higher education, Debenhams, Gloucester
A former Debenhams is to become a 20,000m2 city centre campus for the University of Gloucestershire. ADP Architecture is designing the £70 million project, which will convert the 1930s Art Deco-style building to house the School of Health + Social Care and Education + Humanities. The L-shaped, five storey site is the largest commercial retail building in the city and will be extensively refurbished and remodelled.