"Sheffield's Covent Garden" - new ideas for John Lewis store aim to spark city-wide conversation on its future use

Sheffield’s long-planned city centre retail quarter is finally taking shape. Retaining John Lewis has been a key part of the redevelopment plans for a long time, but its closure now appears imminent.

Wednesday, 7th April 2021, 3:45 pm
A view of the building from Barker's Pool showing how new cafes and restaurants on the ground floor could expand out to provide outdoor seating in the square taken by Tom Hunt and Adam Park.

This would be a tragedy for its staff who will need support to find new jobs, but it doesn’t have to be the killer blow for the city centre many have feared. We have an opportunity to create something new and different for Sheffield

The outpouring of anger and memories since closure was announced shows the affection generations of Sheffielders have for ‘Cole Brothers’. This isn’t just nostalgia about one shop.

The huge public response is a reminder about the importance of city centres and what they provide: places where all of us - young and old - can come together to meet, socialise and experience new things; to just ride the escalators, browse and dream, and yes, to shop and spend money.

A view from Cambridge Street showing how an art gallery (potentially a new home for Graves Gallery) could be accessible from the street-level entrance on Cross Burgess Street

Thanks to an agreement struck last year Sheffield Council has control of this important local building. Rather than simply wait to be presented with new plans by developers, the deal gives us all a chance to shape its future.

The council is asking people to send in ideas but they should go further and convene a big public conversation about how to reuse and re-imagine the building.

Let’s turn the frustration into something positive and tap into the creativity of our city of makers and designers. Then having identified new priorities the city could run an architectural design competition and invite proposals to help us bring them to life.

Top of our list would be the French architects Lacaton and Vassal, who have just won a global architecture prize for their imaginative reuse and transformation of existing buildings.

A new 3-D plan of the building shows how its uses could fit together

They’ve worked with communities and city authorities to breathe new life into housing developments and turn factories into arts centres.

Of course, demolition is sometimes required but if we’re serious about becoming a net-zero city then tearing down high-quality buildings like John Lewis makes no sense. The greenest building is the one that already exists.

So here’s some ideas and images to get things started:

Covid has shown the importance of meeting and eating outdoors so let’s make a better connection between the building and Barker’s Pool.

Cafes and restaurants on the ground floor could expand out to take advantage of the square connecting Division Street, the exciting developments on Cambridge Street, and becoming Sheffield’s Covent Garden.

The building is big enough for multiple uses, including retail.

Online shopping is here to stay but many of us still want to see and touch before we buy. Refurbishment could create high-quality spaces for big brands as well as affordable units for local independents; a different offer to Meadowhall.

Let’s draw international inspiration too. The Kulturhuset sits at the heart of Stockholm and is home to galleries, libraries, performing arts spaces, cafes, declaring itself “a public space for all people”.

The need for long-term investment in the Central Library and Graves Gallery is well-known - could they find a new home in Barker’s Pool in our own House of Culture?

With its accessible entrances and high-ceilings these are ideal spaces. One suggestion shared with us is to invite the BBC to relocate from Shoreham Street. “This is the BBC broadcasting from the heart of Sheffield” - we like the sound of that.

How about also providing affordable studio and rehearsal spaces for musicians, producers and broadcasters? That sounds even better.

Art and performance, food and retail all under one roof: that’s an exciting vision to attract people into the city. We could transform a much-loved building into a brand new place that our children and grandchildren remember as a place of wonder and innovation.

But crucially, let’s think about housing too. The city centre is increasingly a place to live but so much of what has been built is one and two-bed small apartments designed for a transient young population.

This won’t lead to mixed long-term communities being formed.

Where are the 3-4 bedroom homes for families? Where are the apartments for older people and new social housing? Well, why not in Barker’s Pool? Why not extend upwards with new modular homes and rooftop gardens?

These are just some ideas, Sheffielders will have lots more. And if this sounds idealistic then good! We need that right now. The council has a rare chance to rethink the building with the public, for the public.

By being ambitious we can attract investment.

Let’s act now so if closure happens there’s a ‘meanwhile’ short-term plan and a long-term vision. We can’t afford for the building to sit empty.

John Lewis famously promised it “never knowingly undersold”.

Let’s not miss this opportunity and let’s not sell our city centre short.

This text and images were created by Tom Hunt and Adam Park.

Tom Hunt is a researcher at the University of Sheffield. Adam Park is a local architect and researcher. Both write in a personal capacity.