Sheffield’s very own version of New York’s Times Square - with a Chinese twist - is on course to be partially completed by September 2017.
Anyone driving through the city centre cannot fail to notice the hive of construction work activity around St Mary’s Gate and Bramall Lane that has been taking place since January.
The shells of a 21-storey tower and new buildings are clearly visible as work on the £65m New Era development, which is entirely funded through Chinese investment, takes place.
Jerry Cheung, managing director of the New Era Development, said while the scheme intends to create a Sheffield Chinatown it will have a far more international flavour.
The scheme, sitting between St Mary’s Gate, Bramall Lane and Sheldon Street and covering over 86,000 sq ft, will be based around a central plaza that Mr Cheung hopes will become a major new public space in the heart of the city.
It will be surrounded by shops and restaurants, while apartment flats for around 700 students are being built.
The development will also include a business ‘incubator’ - aimed at Chinese firms who want to establish a presence in the UK and local companies who want to explore opportunities in China.
Mr Cheung said progress on construction is going well, with the first phase being partly completed by September next year and fully finished by April 2018.
There are five ‘blocks’ to the scheme, with three to the north of Boston Street being completed in the first phase and the remaining two sitting to the south of Boston Street in the second.
The second stage of work, involving the demolition of the existing KH Oriental supermarket on Sheldon Street and moving it to a new location and the creation of an underground car park, is to get under way from next June.
The first block will include the new home of the KH Oriental supermarket.
Mr Cheung said: “We don’t want the traditional Chinatown. We want something more like the New York Times Square but it will obviously have that kind of Chinese atmosphere.
“We want to be international, we are talking to the likes of Starbucks and Costa.
“We hope it will be a public square for Sheffield and the community to enjoy.”
He said he hoped music and food festival events could be held in the plaza square once it is completed.
He said rather than being like the Chinatowns of other cities in which a few streets are separate from other areas, the hope for the Sheffield version is for it to be an integrated part of the city’s cultural, social and business life.
“It is not the Manchester or Newcastle version of Chinatown,” he said.
“This is the 21st Century version of Chinatown - it is the new era and that is why the scheme is called that.”
Mr Cheung, who has lived in Sheffield since 1975, has been working on the idea of creating a Sheffield Chinatown since 2005, with the original idea being for the scheme to be in the London Road area and include a hotel.
He managed to get Chinese investors to support the revised plans for the development in the new location after telling them about Sheffield’s huge potential.
A consortium of six investors from mainland China put money into the scheme after being persuaded to invest in Sheffield rather than London, Birmingham or Manchester.
“Development like this will not happen overnight,” Mr Cheung said.
“Sheffield has a lot going for it. But it is the best-kept secret - it is a good city but we are not telling a lot of people about it.
“It has got potential that has not been explored.
“Through my community work, I link up with the Chinese embassy and the Chinese consulate. Every time I go, I promote Sheffield and the idea of the Chinatown.
“It is 2016 so we are talking 10 or 11 years to get to this point.”
Mr Cheung said he is creating a report for his investors on what the impact of Britain leaving the European Union will be on the scheme.
He said that while this project should not be affected by the economic uncertainty caused by the result of the EU referendum, he was concerned about its impact on potential future investment in the city from China.
“Obviously, it has changed,” he said.
“Before it was like ‘Let’s go, we can’t go wrong’. Now they are thinking ‘Wait a minute’.”
Mr Cheung said he hoped there would be a second referendum on the issue before the UK commits to leaving the EU.
“It is very unwelcome. The truth is nobody saw this coming in the business world,” he said.
“I understand why people say immigration is a problem, especially the free movement of people within 27 states.
“But the UK had a big shout in the EU and the EU had a big shout on the global stage, with that influence and power.
“Leaving the EU, we have lost that big shout. Money can’t buy that.
“It is such a big decision and the majority was so small. This decision is so important to the UK and there must be a second referendum.
“I think a lot of people are regretting it now they can see the consequences.”
Despite the uncertainty over the British economy, Mr Cheung said he was excited about the prospects for the business incubator element of the New Era scheme.
He said a questionnaire is to be sent out to local businesses across the region to get a clearer picture of the potential opportunities they see from working with Chinese firms.
Mr Cheung said the results of the survey will be used to help develop how the incubator scheme will work in practice.
He said the overall scheme has already brought work to Sheffield, with hundreds of construction workers currently employed on building the development.
Mr Cheung said the project will also create permanent jobs in the long-term as a variety of food, drink and retail businesses open up in the area.
It is also intended to improve the way shoppers can get about Sheffield city centre on foot, with improved pedestrian links to The Moor due to the new public sqaure eliminating the need for people to cross the busy dual carriageway of St Mary’s Gate.
A planning application for the scheme previously said the development would bring ‘potentially very great’ economic benefits for Sheffield.
It said: “Firstly, finance for the development is coming from China, bringing substantial overseas investment into the city.
“The development is aimed at bringing together independent retailers and businesses, which will benefit from being located within a local commercial and retail centre.
“The London Road area is already a successful multicultural trading area with many excellent shops and restaurants.
“This development will extend and reinforce the importance of the area attracting new customers and business.
It added the area was ‘in great need of development’ following investment in this part of Sheffield stalling since the financial crash of 2008.
Mr Cheung said he was convinced the completion of the new development will bring great benefits to the city and the St Mary’s Gate area.
“This is land that has been empty for 25 to 30 years,” he said.
“Every driver going through Sheffield will now see a new development rather than an empty space.”