Moving beyond hotel plan with library and arts centre vision in Sheffield city centre

Sheffield Central Library.
Sheffield Central Library.
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Sheffield’s Central Library and Graves Gallery building is highly unlikely to be converted into a five-star hotel - as plans are being drawn up to turn the entire venue into a landmark cultural hub as well as creating a £20 million library in the city’s new retail quarter.

For the past year the council’s Chinese investment partner, Sichuan Guodong Group, has been exploring the prospect of both funding a hotel and keeping a gallery at the Grade II-listed Surrey Street building as part of a £1 billion, six-decade agreement. But its enthusiasm has been dampened as the proposal’s unviability and the significant costs associated with the site have become increasingly apparent.

A sketch showing what the inside of a new Central Library in Sheffield could look like

A sketch showing what the inside of a new Central Library in Sheffield could look like

The council says it is still working with the company on other potential projects in Sheffield, including residential developments, and the idea of a five-star hotel elsewhere in the city centre has not been dropped. However, a consultation is about to be launched on building a new Central Library. The multi-purpose facility would incorporate a traditional lending service alongside computers, places to meet, a performance space, café, children’s library and room for the city archives.

Potential sites have been looked at, with the land between Charter Square and Barker’s Pool earmarked for the second phase of Sheffield’s new retail quarter - which now has the working title Heart of the City 2 and will incorporate leisure and culture - the frontrunner.

“That’s where we’re looking at sites,” said Coun Mary Lea, cabinet member for culture, parks and leisure. “I can’t see it going anywhere else. It would attract other businesses.”

This week a development brief, prepared earlier this year for Sichuan Guodong Group, emerged that presented options for a new 200-bedroom hotel at Surrey Street. The report suggested creating a tall block in the building’s central courtyard and a tower on the parcel of land next to Arundel Gate that could ‘tie in’ with the existing premises.

Computer-generated images were also presented showing how a 30-storey tower next to the building could look. The council’s consultants said the ‘level of calibre expected’ for a hotel and gallery scheme needed to be on a par with the redeveloped St Pancras station in London or the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court at the British Museum.

Terms were drafted and sent to China for scrutiny, and nearly £150 million of funding was requested by the council, but a 12-month exclusivity agreement with the construction group – an important part of the proposal outlined last November – was never signed.

“Reaching a common understanding with the investor regarding a number of key principles has proven more complex and time-consuming than originally anticipated,” said the minutes of a board meeting in September.

Coun Lea said: “The Chinese investment is absolutely still there and a five-star hotel somewhere in the city would hopefully form part of that investment. Obviously the proposal last year was to develop the Graves building as that hotel. They’ve come to the view that it’s a very difficult building and financially it would be very difficult to manage. I think we’re now at that stage where we need to look at the other options.”

She said the situation had moved on considerably since the brief was written and the council had activated its ‘plan B’.

“Any hotel would not be on that site at all, or next to it. It would be somewhere else in the city centre.”

Coun Lea said the new library would be ‘prominent and big’, not restricted purely to books, and ‘totally accessible to everybody’. Presently, people in wheelchairs have to use a back entrance to enter the Graves building, which needs extensive repairs.

“It’s a library for this age – digital, communication, for learning, debates and discussions. There would be perhaps some commercial use in there - cafés, maybe a restaurant. All options are open.

“Somebody called it ‘the city’s living room’ – it will be where we all meet. Public libraries are a place where you can walk in, sit down and nobody is going to move you on.”

The council has toured libraries around the country to see what has been done in other city centres. The Millennium Library in Norwich is most closely aligned with Sheffield’s aspirations – it is based in a striking modern building called The Forum that is home to several organisations, including the BBC and an offshoot of the city college, as well as a café and restaurant. An amphitheatre-like space outside has hosted theatre, opera, music and art exhibitions.

In March the Town Hall was mooted as a potential location for a new Central Library in Sheffield but Coun Lea said it had ‘never been on the cards’: “People might have said ‘What about the Town Hall?’ but that was never going to be our intention.”

She said the council would start identifying the necessary funds for a new building. “Maybe a new central library would be around £20 million. We have not got that money yet but that’s what we’re thinking.”

A previous estimate for revamping the Graves building put the cost at £39m, ‘with a lot of enhancements’.

“It probably won’t be that much money to develop.”

It is envisaged that the art gallery will take over the whole of the Art Deco building on Surrey Street, which dates from 1934.

Coun Lea admitted that the vision was ‘not as developed’ as the new library plan, but said: “We see that as a cultural hub. We’ve got a massive amount of art locked away that we can’t show people because we haven’t got the space to do that. There’s space for performance, music, some commercial use for a restaurant.”

Museums Sheffield, and its chief executive Kim Streets, would be ‘taking the lead, with the council’s support’, and bids to the Arts Council and heritage bodies are anticipated. The ambition of a ‘Hepworth for Sheffield’, referring to the popular gallery in Wakefield, has been expressed.

“The building won’t be left empty,” said Coun Lea.

“That’s the balancing act we’ve got to achieve. We can look for the money for both projects but they’ve got to dovetail.”

Ms Streets said: “We’re delighted the Graves Gallery will continue to play an important role in the city. We look forward to working with Sheffield Council to explore the options for its future.”

The consultation will be launched early in 2018. An opening date for a new library has not been set, but Heart of the City 2 is expected to be finished by 2023.

“We want to go out to the people of Sheffield and ask what they want, and what a new central library should be,” said Coun Lea.

Library Theatre could stay in Tudor Square

The Library Theatre could remain on its present site as part of a ‘cultural hub’ in the existing Central Library and Graves Gallery building.

The 260-seat hall in Tudor Square is generally used by non-professional acting groups, but Coun Mary Lea said the venue was ‘not used as much as it could be’.

“It’s not an ideal place to put on plays and other performances. Some people love it but it’s got very poor disabled access.

“Amateur dramatics in the city is very important. We want to see how we can support that side of the community. We want to nurture our actors and actresses.”

Asked whether the theatre would remain in the existing building, she said: “I think that’s a possibility, absolutely.”

Consultants have begun preparing a report identifying the options for a replacement venue in a re-used building or a completely new library.