VIDEO: 'Sheffield city centre needs John Lewis - and our refurbishment sets the stage for £300m new extension,' says Meadowhall boss

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When darkness falls over the east end of Sheffield, an army of workers advances on Meadowhall. Bringing pneumatic drills, cherry pickers and other heavy-duty equipment, more than 200 builders spend the night digging up flooring and stripping out fittings as the shopping centre’s £60 million refurbishment continues at pace. Then, by 6.30am, the teams are gone, leaving the place ready for customers and another day’s trading.

“The logistics are quite incredible,” says director Darren Pearce, surveying the results on The Arcade, one of the malls already overhauled.

Meadowhall centre director Darren Pearce in a revamped area. Picture by Chris Etchells

Meadowhall centre director Darren Pearce in a revamped area. Picture by Chris Etchells

The figures alone illustrate the extent of the huge balancing act required to keep the retail colossus up and running, while ensuring the work is completed by the target date of late October.

Three thousand square metres of perforated metal cladding is being installed, along with 1,500 metres of glass balustrades - equivalent to the height of Ben Nevis. Then there’s the 750 metres of minimalist circular columns that replace the plazas’ old, mock-classical pillars.

“Meadowhall is a £1.9 billion asset. It’s always got to be evolving,” explains Darren. “This is by far the biggest and most significant investment we’ve ever made.”

Accordingly, the £60million cost has been revised, and is now ‘more like £80million’ when the shops’ contribution is factored in.

A part of Meadowhall where refurbishment has yet to finish. Picture by Chris Etchells

A part of Meadowhall where refurbishment has yet to finish. Picture by Chris Etchells

The aim is to update and ‘declutter’ the malls, addressing fears that Meadowhall’s interior design was slipping out of fashion. So, following a blueprint by global architect BDP, features such as arches and Juliet balconies are being ditched in favour of wooden finishes and glass, creating a brighter feel - almost as if shoppers are outside.

“A sense of space and lightness is important,” agrees Darren, a former accountant who joined the centre in the early 1990s when the concept of a giant, out-of-town retail complex was still a novelty.

Underpinning the makeover is the idea of splitting Meadowhall into four different areas, each with a distinct theme, from ‘high fashion’ Park Lane to The Gallery, which promises an ‘industrial and slightly urban’ atmosphere.

Fundamental needs can’t be ignored amid the overall concept, though. Toilets and seating are top of customers’ list for improvements, and new upholstered chairs are being trialled presently.

The October target is a ‘very decisive point’, Darren admits. “We really want the works finished then – it’s the real kick-on point to Christmas.”

He says completion will ‘set the stage’ for an even bigger development, the centre’s planned £300m ‘leisure hall’ extension. Sheffield Council is expected to give a verdict in October at the earliest.

“It will transform us from a regional mall into a national mall in terms of our profile, presence and attractiveness. What Meadowhall was in 1990, it’ll become again in 2021, leading the industry. As a gateway to the city, it then puts Sheffield on the map.”

Highways England is assessing the scheme’s impact on local roads and Junction 34 of the M1. Already British Land, which co-owns the site alongside the Norwegian Government’s pension fund, has scaled down the proposal to offer fewer shops and a smaller cinema, amid concern the annexe could harm the city centre.

Darren, also president of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, expresses enthusiasm about the city centre’s new retail quarter, the first phase of which is under construction. “The city centre is coming to fruition, let’s be affirmative about that.”

Vital to the retail quarter is the presence of John Lewis as the main anchor tenant.

Darren says Meadowhall has held talks with the retailer in the past but is not interested in poaching the department store, because of the damage it could inflict on the middle of Sheffield.

“Of course we have had conversations with John Lewis, but the leisure hall does not lend itself to it at all, it’s got leisure and catering. We’ve spoken to every retailer about space over the years, but we recognise what an important component that is to the city centre.

“John Lewis is not on our agenda. It’s not even on our radar. We’re positively endorsing John Lewis in the city centre.”

Coun Mazher Iqbal, cabinet member for business and investment at Sheffield Council, said: “We are in ongoing talks with all target retailers and occupiers for the Sheffield Retail Quarter scheme, including John Lewis.

"John Lewis has a long and proud trading history here in Sheffield, and we would welcome their being an integral part of our improved, thriving and vibrant city centre.”

Meadowhall feels it lacks ‘the right mix’ - its offering is split between 94 per cent retail, and six per cent catering and leisure. There are very few empty units - the occupancy rate is 98 per cent - but Darren says the mix ‘should be 80/20’.

“We’ve got massive leakage out of our city. People are saying ‘The proposition is not strong at the moment - I’ll go elsewhere, to Leeds and Manchester’.”