'Sheffield's heritage could be a treasure in the retail quarter - don't waste it'

How the 2015 retail quarter plans imagined Leah's Yard, on the right, could fit into the development.
How the 2015 retail quarter plans imagined Leah's Yard, on the right, could fit into the development.
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As the wait for new plans for the second phase of Sheffield's £480 million retail quarter goes on, the future of one of the city's most at-risk historic sites remains unclear.

Leah’s Yard, nestled between the Tap and Tankard and The Benjamin Hunstman pubs in Cambridge Street, has been covered in scaffolding for months due to fears about its structural integrity.

The front of the building is now propped up by scaffolding.

The front of the building is now propped up by scaffolding.

Once a thriving little mesters complex, it is now abandoned and in such a state that in 2012 English Heritage named the Grade II*-listed building as one of the 10 most at risk sites in Yorkshire and the Humber.

The most recent plans for the retail quarter, submitted in 2015, show Leah's Yard restored and nestled among modern new shops along an extended Fargate.

In February a council spokesman said the building was a 'key heritage asset for the city and links back to Sheffield’s proud tradition of little mesters and steel-making'.

The council says little has changed since then - Leah's Yard needs plenty of repair work and the authority is working to secure the building to give it 'the best chance of being a part of the future scheme'.

Leah's Yard in years gone by.

Leah's Yard in years gone by.

The 2015 plans are likely to be superseded by new, more detailed proposals in the coming months.

But as negotiations between the council's development partner Queensberry and retailers such as John Lewis drag on, Leah's Yard remains in a sorry state.

A report by chartered surveyor and property consultant Montagu Evans into the various historic buildings within the retail quarter was submitted by the council as part of the 2015 application.

The report rates the 'heritage value' of Leah's Yard as high, calling it a 'significant example of a complex of workshops developed piecemeal and altered for different aspects of Sheffield’s cutlery and metal working trades'.

The rear of the building with the retail quarter going up in the background.

The rear of the building with the retail quarter going up in the background.

The report highlights the 'serious' problems in some areas of the 19th century building, including 'outward movement' of the Cambridge Street frontage - something the scaffolding is trying to address.

It emphasises the plan to ‘fully integrate Leah’s Yard into the fabric of the city centre’, and anticipates conversion into small food and retail units, therefore protecting the building while giving it a 'viable new use without compromising special interest'.

But Historic England was not impressed, saying the proposed Fargate extension - and the demolition of most of the buildings near Leah's Yard - would harm the setting of the building.

A response to the council said there were 'less harmful ways of delivering the public benefit of the scheme without causing this level of harm'. It suggested keeping more of the buildings along Cambridge Street.

Leah's Yard on the right with new shops opposite.

Leah's Yard on the right with new shops opposite.

And there is a worry among heritage groups that simply bringing cafes and shops into Leah's Yard will waste the potential of something that could become a city treasure.

Nick Roscoe, of Hallamshire Historic Buildings, wants to see Sheffield's industrial heritage celebrated - perhaps by including Museums Sheffield and the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust.

He said: "You have all those wonderful little mesters workshops - it would be great to see some of those with people in there demonstrating the skills that built this city.

"I'm not saying there shouldn't be cafes and food outlets, and they are probably crucial to any heritage asset, but there should be a mix."

Private firms behind some of Sheffield's biggest development projects, such as The Moor and Meadowhall, have repeatedly acknowledged the need to move away from the traditional retail-only environment to something with a greater mix of entertainment and leisure in order to attract visitors.

This is particularly key in the city centre, and the opening of The Light cinema has added to increasing footfall on The Moor.

The old little mesters workshops.

The old little mesters workshops.

Nick believes Leah's Yard can contribute to that success if done in the right way.

"You have got the potential for huge numbers of visitors to be walking in that area," he said.

"Many might not otherwise visit museums, but could be drawn in to find out about the city.

"Then you have got tourists and foreign students, who I know are interested in Sheffield's heritage."

Although new plans are expected at some point in the next few months, concern about the approach taken in the 2015 application remains.

Designs at that time suggested all of the buildings along Cambridge Street bar Leah's Yard and the front of the Grade II-listed Bethel Sunday School would be torn down and replaced by modern units.

Part of the justification is to keep 'sight lines' to the new department store.

But Leah's Yard in particular cuts an isolated figure, according to Nick.

"We shouldn't underestimate the charm that these buildings have for people," he said.

"Keeping some of these buildings doesn't preclude large developments."

More heritage causes for concern

Former Bethel Sunday School, Cambridge Street

The Grade II-listed building dates back to 1852 and was put up to cater for up to 500 scholars as an extension to the Primitive Methodist Chapel on the other side of Bethel Walk.

Beyond the facade facing Cambridge Street the building has been heavily altered, according to the Montagu Evans report.

The building is given a 'moderate' rating of historical significance. The report says the building contributes to the setting of Leah's Yard and therefore forms a ‘positive piece of townscape within the conservation area’.

Current plans are to keep the facade but get rid of the rest of the building.

Salvation Army Citadel, Cross Burges Street

The striking architecture means the Citadel building stands out despite its back street location. It was used by the Salvation Army until 2000 and has been vacant ever since.

The building is owned privately and is not part of the retail quarter scheme. It has been for sale for some time.

According to the 2015 plans the hope is that the refurbishment of surrounding buildings will increase the interest in redeveloping the building and ‘ensure immediate setting of the Citadel is preserved’.

The Salvation Army Citadel on the right, with possible new shops.

The Salvation Army Citadel on the right, with possible new shops.

How Cambridge Street could look, with the former Bethel Sunday School on the left.

How Cambridge Street could look, with the former Bethel Sunday School on the left.