Restorations: Cole Brothers - developer wanted to create major new destination in Sheffield city centre

‘A unique opportunity for an imaginative developer to create a major new destination, reinventing or replacing the property as a key element of the evolution of Sheffield city centre’.

Friday, 27th May 2022, 3:56 pm
Updated Friday, 27th May 2022, 3:57 pm

That’s the pitch from the estate agent hired to sell the former John Lewis store - arguably the city’s most important development site.

A sales brochure states it is a chance to ‘further enhance’ the city centre as it ‘increasingly focuses’ on culture, leisure, homes and workspace ‘alongside quality retail’.

But any buyer must also be green.

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The shop ‘stands back respectfully’ in Barker's Pool and allows the City Hall to shine and the War Memorial to be the focus, Mr Hughes says.

The council - which owns the building - is ‘committed’ to reducing ‘negative environmental impacts’ and ‘encouraging low carbon lifestyles’, and proposals for the property must show how they will contribute to that.

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The store is also considered to have architectural merit and because it is in the city centre conservation area ‘reuse and adaptation of the building would be preferred’.

If it is retained, the authority wants to see ‘active ground floor uses’ along Barker’s Pool and Cambridge Street. And it says the hulking mass of the building could broken down by small courtyards.

Sheffield City Council is selling the former John Lewis building.

But it has not ruled out demolition. If not the whole building, then the car park, which could become a ‘modest open space’. The authority is ‘very interested’ to hear what bidders think of that, the brochure states.

It adds: ‘This would be in the sunniest location and would contribute to the network of high quality open spaces running from the Peace Gardens to Devonshire Green and provide some breathing space to improve the setting of the existing buildings’.

If it does become flats, then the authority will not accept more than 20 per cent purpose-built student housing.

Robin Hughes of Hallamshire Historic Buildings is keen for people to think about its setting in Barker’s Pool, its design and materials and potential place in history.

The council also wants bidders to indicate how much rent they would pay. It owns the freehold and is selling the plot on a 250-year lease.

The sales pitch ends: ‘The environmental and social impacts of proposals and the track record of potential bidders will be an important element of the council’s decision’.

The process comes after the shop shut down last year with the loss of 299 jobs. The council previously bought it in a bid to ensure it would stay open. Six months later it closed for good, hit by internet shopping and repeated lockdowns, John Lewis bosses said.

Mr Hughes points to the join between store and car park - which could be demolished to create a small park.

Cole Brothers opened in 1963 as a state-of-the-art department store and multi-storey car park.

But there is a potential issue that could have a huge impact - listing.

A group of historians, heritage experts and architects have applied to Historic England to have the building listed - while Sheffield City Council has applied for ‘immunity’.

The process could see the building protected in the same way unloved Park Hill flats were saved from demolition.

If it does become flats, then the authority will not accept more than 20 per cent purpose-built student housing, it says.

Whatever happens, it has forced people to consider the merits of the structure and whether it is worth saving.

Many have said ‘no’ in response to articles in The Star, and the council says there is a ‘clear preference’ for demolition.

But Robin Hughes, of Hallamshire Historic Buildings, is a big fan.

And while he knows he has ‘no chance’ of persuading people to change their minds, he is keen for them to think about its setting in Barker’s Pool, its design and materials - and its potential place in history.

He said: “Once you start looking at it you find nice things. I can’t prove it’s beautiful. Someone can’t be argued into it but things can be pointed out and then it starts to make sense.”

The shop ‘stands back respectfully’ and allows the City Hall to shine and the War Memorial to be the focus, he says.

He added: “The shop has good manners. It’s retiring but not bland. It’s perfect for here.

“The floor heights are exactly half the separation between the columns which helps it to look ‘right’, even if you’re not aware of it.

“The white tiles are from Belgium, the granite cladding is from Spain and the brown glass mosaic is Italian.”

But much of its impact is lost today because it is shabby and ‘filthy’, although it was once influential - Fountain Precinct on the other side of Barker’s Pool copies the tiling and the design, he points out.

Mr Hughes added: “It was built at a time when Sheffield was leading the way architecturally in housing with schemes like Park Hill and Gleadless Valley which were admired nationwide.”

The Cole Brothers building is simply too new to be widely loved, he adds.

“Some might have asked why Leah’s Yard was listed. It tells us what life was like in the city in the mid 19th century.

“Cole Brothers is too new for a lot of people to think that it is history. But one day we will be able to see it in exactly the same way.”

And it’s not just his love for the period, he insists.

Heriot House on Pond Hill, from the early 1970s, also has regular window spacing and varied materials but is ‘bland’.

Sustainability must not be dodged, he added.

Sheffield City Council is committed to being ‘carbon neutral’ in eight years.

“Up to half of whole life embedded carbon emissions are created during construction. Almost without exception the greenest building is one that already exists,” he said.

A survey of the store found so many broken and outdated systems that experts believe it should be stripped back to bare concrete before a revamp – costing up to £70m.

Castle House has shown how a large department store can be brought back to life, Mr Hughes explained.

“You could have different uses on different floors like Castle House but perhaps opened up to have ‘arcades’, the 20th century equivalent of the Victorian arcades in Leeds,” he said.

He added: “Once it’s gone it’s gone.”

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If the building is retained, the council wants to see active ground floor uses along Barker’s Pool and Cambridge Street.