Work to start 'this year' on £20m plan to save Sheffield's high street with an events hub, flats and pocket parks
Work will 'definitely' start this year on a scheme worth more than £20 million to 'future-proof' some of Sheffield's most important spots with a multi-storey events building, hundreds of flats, pocket parks and more, one of the key figures behind the project has pledged.
It comes after the city was awarded every penny of its £15.8 million bid to the Government's Future High Streets Fund - money that will be topped up with another £5 million from partners.
Fargate, High Street and connected thoroughfares such as Chapel Walk will be the focus of the investment which aims to reinvent spaces hit hard by the decline of retail, a trend accelerated by the pandemic. Measures to retain existing shops such as Marks & Spencer and Boots are on the agenda, as is creating a more attractive environment for visitors.
Under the funding requirements, the plans must be realised by March 2024.
"It will definitely start this year, it has to," said Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of city and culture at Sheffield University, which lent its expertise to proposals that will now be delivered by Sheffield Council.
Prof Toulmin revealed that, originally, Sheffield was not going to bid for the money - until city leaders read the small print.
"We didn't feel we qualified in many ways, because it was aimed at towns, but when you got into the detail you could look at each area of the city and it's almost like a mini town," she said.
A shortlist was drawn up of all the areas that met the Government criteria, and these places were then ranked based on the Treasury's rules.
"The three that came out were Attercliffe, high street, and Stocksbridge," said Prof Toulmin. "Those were submitted, and the Government shortlisted the high street."
Under the scheme, intended to complement Heart of the City II and The Moor's revival, Fargate and High Street are to be reinvented as 'social hubs'. One of the main elements is Event Central, a multi-use space that will be created in a building on Fargate previously used for retail - this will host events and exhibitions, as well as offering co-working facilities and a café.
Seating areas, greenery and lighting are on the way too, along with areas to stage events outdoors. The site of the old Goodwin Fountain at the top of Fargate will be 'where the bigger events are, where you can put a stage', Prof Toulmin said.
"We had everything from Tramlines and one of the big music academies saying they could do an event for 5,000 people there, all the way through to smaller festivals saying a series of pocket parks would work for a busker festival or children's activities," she said.
In Sheffield, she said, outdoor spaces were 'often too small or too big'. "Having a space up and down Fargate which is flexible through green planting is a really good way of doing it. What we didn't want is a massive open space that looks barren the rest of the time."
Events on Fargate are expected to attract 110,680 visitors annually, 'of which 50 per cent are assumed to be additional', according to the bid.
Some of the money will be spent on buying buildings. 'Various' premises had been identified as being suitable for Event Central, Prof Toulmin said.
"I would think, with Covid, there are probably more buildings available than when we put the bid in," she added.
Even before spring 2020, vacancy rates were at 14 per cent on Fargate. Since coronavirus hit, Pret a Manger has permanently shut at the historic Coles Corner, and Paperchase - which has a branch on Fargate - is the latest brand to be pushed to the brink of administration.
Prof Toulmin said the bid was 'Covid-proof'.
“I wasn't predicting it, but I could see the future of the high street was not just shops. Sheffield had experienced the decline of the high street probably a lot earlier than other places. I think that was, ironically, in our favour.”
The plans also include the Front Door Access programme, which will give direct entry to the vacant upper floors of retail buildings. This, it is thought, will speed up their conversion to residential flats.
"Those buildings were built at a time when a shop would cover four floors," said Prof Toulmin. "You often get people saying 'Why can't we have a flat there?' Well, there's no access."
Chapel Walk, meanwhile, is to benefit from 'incredible lighting' and underground stores where bins can be tidied away. In addition, Orchard Square is 'very much part of the bid', said Prof Toulmin, and Marks & Spencer has been a 'keen stakeholder'.
"They're going to have a wonderful boulevard outside, so it's about how they incorporate that into what their store could be."
She said the necessary work was 'completely costed'.
"We've got to do what we've put in that plan. The actual bid from the Government is £15.8 million, and then there's an additional £5 million of support from partners as well. There's private sector match, and there's council match."
Council leader Bob Johnson said the project provided 'hope' despite the pandemic. “Our ambition is to create a future-proof city centre, where people can live, work and spend quality time with friends and family in a safe and pleasing environment.”
John Heller, chief executive of Orchard Square's owner London & Associated Properties, said the funding was 'welcome and exciting news'. "It is essential that the recent downwards trajectory is reversed through investment into the buildings and public spaces around Fargate and High Street, and the council is to be commended for making this a reality."
Meetings will take place involving the council and central Government to discuss the plans in detail and set timescales.
Fifteen areas have been awarded £255 million from the £1 billion Future High Streets Fund, while a further 57 have received provisional funding of £576 million.