John Lewis Sheffield: Staggering £70m cost of repairing building revealed - as experts recommend demolition

Sheffield’s crumbling John Lewis could cost a staggering £70m to repair - prompting consultants to recommend demolition.

By David Walsh
Thursday, 9th December 2021, 7:02 pm

A survey of the Barker’s Pool building found so many broken and outdated systems that experts believe it should be stripped back to bare concrete before a revamp, sending costs through the roof.

Council chiefs would then have to find a use for a huge, purpose-built department store - with little natural light - that could need yet more cash for specialist uses, such as acoustics in a concert hall.

WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS AND WHAT WOULD THEY COST?

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The store closed in June and stands empty.

‘Place making’ consultants Fourth Street say one option is to flatten the building and create a ‘world class’ square like Las Ramblas in Barcelona, costing up to £15m.

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But the best choice, they say, would be to include a new block - of ‘civic’ use, offices and flats - on the south edge of the plot, pushing costs to an estimated £40m.

The iconic former Coles Brothers store opened in 1963, had its last major refurbishment in 1980, became John Lewis in 2002 and closed amid howls of protest in June. The building belongs to Sheffield City Council.

'Cole Brothers' can faintly be made out after the John Lewis sign came down.

WHO WANTS IT DEMOLISHED?

Fourth Street acknowledges Sheffielders’ nostalgia for it, but claims civic leaders and stakeholders have a ‘noticeable preference to clear the city centre of such a large building of relatively little architectural or heritage merit, that detracts more than it adds to the urban environment’.

And while it ‘frames an important public space’ on Barker’s Pool, on every other side it ‘turns its back to the city’ creating large, blank, inactive façades.

The iconic former Coles Brothers store opened in 1963, had its last major refurbishment in 1980, became John Lewis in 2003 and closed amid howls of protest in June.

It adds: ‘While there is a widespread appreciation of the public’s attachment to the building and the nostalgia it provokes – specifically the extraordinary public response to its closure – we detect even more interest in the opportunities created for the city if the building were not there.

‘Foremost among these is the possibility of creating a large, prominent park or public space of a scale and significance that – with appropriate design – could be comparable to some of the world’s best urban squares and plazas’.

The firm also states: ‘In the midst of a climate emergency, this has to be treated as a ‘last resort’ and subject to a ‘whole life’ analysis of costs and benefits that compares the carbon cost of removal versus its retention’.

A global sports brand wants to invest £100m into a 'home of football' experience in the building.

And it says its recommendation comes ahead of widespread public engagement - and possible opposition - set to start in the new year.

WHAT HAPPENED TO JOHN LEWIS AND WHO OWNS THE BUILDING NOW?

Earlier this week, John Lewis agreed to pay Sheffield City Council £5m for closing the store just 10 months into a 20-year lease.

The deal ended a 20-year saga which saw the authority ‘bending over backwards’ to get the company to stay and be part of city centre regeneration plans.

It culminated in the council buying the building from the firm for £3.4m last summer and renting it back on a 20-year lease for peanuts.

John Lewis then stunned the city by closing the store in June, with the loss of 299 jobs, saying it could no longer be profitably sustained.

How the John Lewis building could look stripped back to concrete ahead of a revamp, costing up to £70m. Picture by Arup.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE BUILDING?

Customers had long noted it was in need of a revamp, especially the escalators which broke regularly.

Now engineers Arup have produced a report into the daunting number of systems and features that need to be replaced - some of them 60 years old.

They include fire escapes, detection and alarm systems, sprinklers, lighting, ceilings, partitions, wiring, ductwork, pipework, the three boilers, ventilation systems, electrical substations and emergency generators.

Asbestos is also a major problem, it is poorly insulated and the car park is crumbling. Due to sloping ramps, it would be expensive to convert into anything else.

Fourth Street states: “On balance, it is likely that much of the structure and internal systems are compromised and in need of major repair or, more likely, replacement. All of this is needed to simply to make the building useable for any purpose.”

Councillors will consider their options in a meeting on Wednesday December 15.

The authority is already borrowing £470m from the Public Works Loan Board to pay for the Heart of the City development which surrounds the John Lewis site.

WHAT COULD A REVAMPED BUILDING BE USED FOR?

Last month, The Star revealed a major sports brand wants to open a £100m footballing experience with pitches on the roof.

Fourth Street lists a string of potential uses for - and dangers of - a revamped building, including retail space for independents and makers, such as an arcade and indoor market - although this would compete with Leah’s Yard, a hub for creative businesses and independent retailers set to open in 2023, on Cambridge Street.

Another option is a ‘flagship retail or shopping centre’ - but this could displace shoppers from elsewhere in the city centre, which is already struggling due to Covid lockdowns and internet shopping - and operators could be hard to find.

Alternative suggestions include an art gallery, a mid-sized music venue, a concert hall, a business accelerator, a skills training and research centre, a creative co-working space, a conference facility and or an exhibition and event space.

The list also includes potentially turning into an adrenaline sports centre (climbing, skateboarding, parkour), library and archive, hospital, hotel or college.

WHAT DO THE NEIGHBOURS THINK?

Flattening John Lewis would be a boon for the owner of the former Salvation Army Citadel on Burgess Street.

In October, owner Robert Hill told The Star he had been ‘in limbo’ for 14 years due to uncertainty with the store.

No bar or restaurant operator would touch his building until they knew what was happening across the road, he said - a situation unchanged since 2007.

The Grade II-listed Citadel closed in 1999 and today stands derelict and decaying - as Heart of the City II developments go up around it.

Mr Hill said the best outcome would be if the John Lewis car park, which looms over the Citadel, was demolished and replaced by a public square. It would also help the new developments on Cambridge Street.

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The building from above.