What now for Sheffield's John Lewis? A week of reaction and innovative ideas from the city
Sheffield’s talent for creativity has shone brightly as people have shared their ideas on what the city’s John Lewis store could become after it was earmarked for closure.
The shock news last week caused a city-wide outcry that is still rumbling on more than a week after the retailer announced it was set to close its historic Barkers Pool store, blaming the Covid-19 pandemic and internet shopping for the decision.
Shoppers who have grown up with the former Cole Brothers store shared their memories, and moving messages on heart shaped cards, as well as a team photograph of some of the 299 staff or ‘partners’ at risk of losing their jobs, have been posted to the doors of the building.
"John Lewis Sheffield is the only reason I come into the city centre”, reads one message.
"The staff are so beyond helpful, always have your best interests at heart and are super friendly.”
To date, more than 21,000 people have also signed a petition to ‘stop John Lewis Sheffield closing, and in turn, stop the city of Sheffield from falling into stagnation.’ And there has been a predictable backlash to John Lewis’ suggestions that people could drive to Leeds to shop with the retailer.
But there has also been a movement of people saying that this could be a new opportunity for Sheffield.
City academic Tom Hunt suggested ‘social housing, rooftop gardens, an arts and concert venue and a new home for the Graves Gallery’.
Mr Hunt, deputy director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, said the building should not be demolished because ‘the greenest building is the one that already exists’.
He wrote: “Sheffield Council has control of the building with a 20-year lease signed in 2020 with John Lewis so let’s use this opportunity and run a big public debate about future use and hold an international architectural design competition to realise a new vision.
“City centres are changing and there is a lot that could be done.
“So, some ideas...The ground floor spaces facing Barker’s Pool could be opened up for cafes and restaurants with large outdoor seating space in front. Barker’s Pool could become an even better, busier public square.”
John Lewis has unveiled plans to build rental homes at 20 sites above or beside Waitrose supermarkets around the UK.
Mr Hunt added: “John Lewis says they want to become a landlord so let's hold them to it. Convert the top floors into high quality social housing at the heart of the city with rooftop gardens. This would be true to its cooperative values and sense of purpose.
“There's long been talk about how Sheffield needs a new arts and concert venue to house a new Sheffield Symphony Orchestra. Could the lower ground floor be converted into a new performance and rehearsal space?
“Or how about relocating Graves Gallery from it's current tired location to convert John Lewis' high-ceiling spaces into big new, accessible public galleries? Move the public library too? Create our very own House of Culture like Stockholm's Kulturhuset.”
Sheffield artist Pete McKee said there was an ‘‘opportunity in Sheffield to be ahead of the game. Move forward.”
He suggested it could become an artisan market with a different theme each weekend.
Sheffield Council’s chief executive Kate Josephs has urged people to send in their “radical ideas” as the city recovers from the blow.
She said: “Let's hear from those with real creativity and real imagination. Coming out of the pandemic, let this now be the time to do it. We can decide it's the death knell for the city centre or decide to build the city of the future people want to visit.”
Last summer, the council bought the building from John Lewis to ensure it did not end up boarded up if the shop closed.
Council officials have said John Lewis will have to pay the authority for breaking its 20-year rent agreement.
It has also been reported that John Lewis could now seek to open a smaller store in the city.
John Lewis has said that they will discuss the proposal for closure in consultation with ‘partner’ staff.
A spokesman said: “We are incredibly grateful for the support our shop has received - the strength of feeling, combined with the heritage of our shop in the city, underlines what a difficult decision proposing to close has been.
“Our plans for smaller format shops remain in the early stages and no locations are confirmed.
"While we would be open to discussing potential sites in the future, our John Lewis Sheffield shop is a proposed closure so it would not be appropriate to comment further."