Is Sheffield’s high street ready for a post-retail future?

Photo by Milena Chyla

‘You’ll love it when it’s done,’ says the reassuring sign on the hoarding around the under-construction £470 million Heart of the City II (HoC II) development in Sheffield city centre.

In terms of progress, the past two decades have been exasperating for its 580,000 residents. Since the millennium, Sheffielders have been tantalised by a slew of slow-to-realise plans in the Steel City’s retail core, including for this key site between the listed Sheffield City Hall in Barker’s Pool and the pedestrianised Moor shopping strip.

Like much of the hilly city, the plot slopes. It is surrounded by buildings from a mix of ages, from Victorian stone-fronted grandeur to fading 80s offices. None of it is very tall. To its north-east, the once thriving Fargate and High Street, with its tram lines and large stores, have become increasingly neglected.

Photo by Yiming Zhou

In many ways HoC II, now two-thirds built, typifies Sheffield’s wider, fluctuating fortunes and stop-start renaissance. It has been a ‘frustrating, slow and patchy’ process, as one local told me. Their hopes have been raised and buildings flattened to make way for development dreams that have then stalled or been repeatedly delayed or revised.

The uncertain fate of the abandoned 1960s John Lewis shop, which neighbours HoC II and was also slated for demolition before its Grade II-listing in August, has further shone a spotlight on the challenges facing the city’s post-Covid high street and what to do with its vacant department stores, undermined by the move to online shopping.

With scores of cranes now dotted across the skyline, is Sheffield finally on the cusp of something significant?

Yet, with scores of cranes now dotted across the skyline, is Sheffield finally on the cusp of something significant? Or at least on the cusp of a cusp? And what issues lie ahead to avoid any revival fizzling out?

HoC II had its genesis 20 years ago. Those reading the AJ in the early noughties may remember seeing the glossy images of its £600 million predecessor, developer Hammerson’s never-realised Sevenstone mall.

Masterplanned by BDP, the project would also have involved knocking down the YRM-designed John Lewis building to make way for the massive shopping precinct, with the retailer moving to a new flagship home on the former (now gone) Wellington Street fire station plot.

Billed as an ‘essential part of repositioning Sheffield in the UK retail hierarchy’, Sevenstone was heralded as a rival – in both look and ambition – to showy, under-one-roof schemes such as Leeds’ Trinity Centre.

Photo by Yiming Zhou

What’s more, Sevenstone arrived with an impressive who’s who of architects attached to it, such as AHMM, Foreign Office Architects, O’Donnell + Tuomey and ACME.

But in 2010, the plans for this 100-shop retail quarter essentially bit the dust, a victim of the global economic crisis – more specifically the government’s austerity cuts and the withdrawal of £12 million of funds promised to it by the regional development agency Yorkshire Forward.

The scheme stuttered along for a couple more years before Sheffield City Council pulled the plug on Hammerson and, in 2013, decided to deliver the scheme itself.

Today, nearly a decade later, the initial stages of Sevenstone’s long-awaited replacement are close to finishing. The local authority has moved away from, in its own words, ‘previous rather monolithic proposals’ to something deliverable in phases.

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Leah’s Yard project within the Heart of the City II

The mixed-use leisure, office and housing development features a dozen blocks overseen by a design team that includes Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. Historic buildings, particularly those at Leah’s Yard, have been retained in a finer-grained, multi-stage plan which includes a new park. It will be home to small, locally backed independents rather than the national mega-corps targeted in the Sevenstone concept.

‘[The] piecemeal approach, developing block by block, may not have meant a quicker or cheaper or perhaps even better result,’ says Alex Maxwell from Sheffield Civic Trust, ‘but it has allowed for the Heart of the City area to retain some of its character, some of its heritage buildings and an understanding of how to navigate the city.’

The project will emerge into a world radically different from when Hammerson rolled out its original shopping concept.

As well as the increased draw of the Meadowhall shopping mall, which has been sucking business out of town for years, Sheffield city centre’s traditional retail offer has become stretched and unsustainable. It extends from the still busy and rejuvenated The Moor (revamped over five phases, including the 2013 market hall by Leslie Jones Architecture), via the struggling Fargate and High Street areas, to Castlegate in the north-east. Here lies an empty plot that was home to the Brutalist-style Castle Gate market (1962), designed by John Womersley at the Sheffield Architects Department, before it was unceremoniously smashed apart in 2015.

The 1964 Cole Brothers Department store, later John Lewis, designed by YRM (1964)

Source:RIBA Collection

In the middle of this cross-town arc is the much-loved John Lewis store, which shut at the start of the Covid pandemic and never reopened. It was a stab in the heart for Sheffield. The shop had been one of the main pulls into the centre and a petition to keep it open attracted 25,000 signatures. The council even bought the building and leased it back to John Lewis (with a rent based on turnover) to entice them to stay. They lasted 10 months.

Whatever happens to the building now is ‘vitally important’ for the city, admits the council. It is currently in talks with ‘several serious potential purchasers’ for the store in the hope of finding a ‘credible scheme which supports the long-term reuse of the building and complements the rest of the HoC II and wider city centre’.

That reuse is not likely to be a department store. However, Elizabeth Motley, head of urbanism and architecture at multidisciplinary practice Integreat Plus, believes John Lewis attracted a certain demographic of shopper whose needs are no longer catered for in central Sheffield. ‘The number of times friends of mine have told me they or their relatives don’t bother going to the city centre anymore, and just go to Meadowhall since John Lewis has gone,’ she remarks.

Photo by Yiming Zhou

Yet, like many in the city, she acknowledges that Sheffield, known for its independent, creative spirit, remains ‘full of possibilities’. She notes too that there is ‘plenty’ being built.

‘The council is very excited by all of this’, she adds. ‘But ordinary members of the public may struggle to understand the overall picture, without a bit of help.’

Vision vs delivery

Sheffield’s regeneration has focused heavily (and with some success) on sprucing up its public realm – even before its latest City Centre Strategic Vision – with the banners celebrating its self-proclaimed Outdoor City status.

An early forerunner was the reimagined and award-winning Peace Gardens (1998), part of the first phase of the Heart of the City project (HoC I). More recently, the council has rolled out its impressive Grey to Green reinvention of the former inner city ring road as a network of lush, green spaces. BDP’s architect director Stephen Marshall is not alone in his praise for the UK’s largest retrofit SuDS (sustainable drainage systems) scheme, describing it as an ‘imaginative and forward-thinking project’.

The Peace Gardens, remodelled in 1998, outside Sheffield Town Hall

Source:Matthew Troke/Shutterstock

However Julian Dobson, senior research fellow at Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, is critical of how other aspects of the strategic plan have been delivered.

‘The vision for the city centre over the last 20 years or so has been correct,’ he says. ‘Overall: high-quality public spaces, a clearly defined business and retail core and better linkages with transport hubs. [Yet] the masterplanning has been let down by some of the implementation, and it’s been overtaken by events to some extent. When Sevenstone was devised, the impact of online retail, Covid and so on wasn’t predicted.’

‘It would be nice, too, to see an end to the monotonous parade of student housing schemes,’ he adds, referring to the relentless production line of cut-and-paste student residential blocks springing up in Sheffield, despite council officers admitting there is an excess.

‘It would be nice to see an end to the monotonous parade of student housing schemes’

Mark Parsons of Sheffield-based social enterprise and architecture practice Studio Polpo also has his concerns about what is being built. ‘There appear to be some areas where any development is seen as positive – almost the bigger and taller the better,’ he says.

‘Some new developments are still only one or two bed units, and clearly not equipped to deal with any climate emergency aspects. Ownership, affordability, and unit types still create “high-churn” of people not staying for long in some of the planned city centre schemes.’

But he is more hopeful for emerging schemes at Kelham Island and at both the Cannon Brewery in Neepsend and across town at the Grade II-listed Eyewitness Works, where shedkm is working with busy urban developer Capital & Centric.

The company has become increasingly active in the South Yorkshire city, drawn in by its ‘independent spirit [and] a very creative vibe’. Its founder, Tim Heatley, says: ‘My gut feeling is that Sheffield has underdelivered on its potential over the years. That’s not a criticism, more of a statement of the optimism and opportunity that exists in the city.

The demolished Castle Market, Sheffield, seen from the Sheaf Market area with the adjacent Norfolk Market scheme on the left

Source:RIBA Collections

‘Too much of the development in the past has focused on expanding retail and student accommodation.’

Heatley is also a fan of Kate Josephs, who became Sheffield City Council’s chief executive last year. (The former head of the government’s Covid taskforce famously hit the headlines for hosting a rule-breaking leaving party in the Cabinet Office). ‘She’s got the bit between her teeth and is shaking things up with a bold ambition and clear vision to create growth in the city,’ he says.

Beyond old-school shopping

Sustained city growth includes addressing Sheffield’s chronic lack of office space. Schemes that are tackling this include 5plus’s huge £300 million office-led West Bar scheme and Pennine Five, the revamp of the former HSBC headquarters (1975) in Tenter Street led by Hadfield Cawkwell Davison. Before this, in 2016, Hodder + Partners completed its speculative 3 St Paul’s office scheme.

As the council’s former director of city centre development, Nalin Seneviratne, says, the challenge is to ensure this space is ready for hybrid working and that Sheffield is ‘ahead of the game in the delivery of sustainable buildings within a unique environment’.

More importantly, growth will increasingly have to look at the imaginative reuse of Sheffield’s existing building stock and, in particular, its boarded-up shops.

A couple of years ago Just H-Architects began retrofitting the Modernist former Co-operative Society’s Castle House building, converting the 1964 Grade II-listed store into a buzzing food hall (Kommune), bookshop (La Biblioteka run by Alex Maxwell), gallery, co-working space (Kollider) and home for the National Video Game Museum.

The Kommune dining space within Just H Architects’ revamp of the Co-op’s former Castle House building (credit David Oates)

Source:Just H Architects

In 2021, supported by the University of Sheffield, the local authority successfully bid for £15.8 million from the Future High Streets Fund to reinvigorate the Fargate precinct.

Although a budget Box Park-type pop-up container village at the top of Fargate has divided opinion – and is now set to move – the plans for Event Central show more promise.

Designed by HLM Architects, the £7 million council-backed project will create a ‘community hub’ and multipurpose events space within the empty, six-storey 20-26 Fargate building – a former Clintons card shop.

Another potentially groundbreaking project in the same area of town is being brought forward by the budding Sheffield Community Land Trust (SCLT). Initiated by Studio Polpo, the land trust is in the final stages of incorporating as a community benefit society.

Its aim is to convert an as-yet-unidentified city centre building, ‘most likely an ex-commercial space, for instance a shop or department store’, to provide affordable housing and workspace for local people.

HLM Architects’ recently consented Event Central project

A statement from the trust reads: ‘[We want] to demonstrate imaginative reprogramming, retrofit, and the strengthening of the centre as a neighbourhood which people of different ages and backgrounds can call home.’

The land trust has now applied for funding from the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority to pay for feasibility work on potential sites. Levelling-up money has also been secured to build houses, offices and parks on the mothballed Castle Gate market plot – the council secured £20 million from central government, part of which will go towards the Park Hill Arts space.

There are other schemes too looking to bring housing bang into the centre of town. Hodder + Partners wants to demolish the old Primark store at the corner of High Street and Angel Street and replace it with King’s Tower, a 39-storey rejigged proposal now housing 454 co-living apartments. According to practice chairman Stephen Hodder, the scheme will offer a ‘residential typology [co-living] that doesn’t really exist in Sheffield’.

Hodders’ Castle Tower plans for 454 co-living flats

But where does the city’s famous arts and cultural scene fit in? James Woodcock, director of Sheffield-based Field Practice, though hopeful of an ‘upturn in the general spirit of the city centre’, feels culture could be ‘supported and foregrounded’ much more.

‘It’s crazy that the Graves Gallery, the home of the city’s visual art collection, is tucked away on the third floor of the library,’ he says. ‘Spaces such as Events Central are welcome, but the council should also be working with landlords and developers to create the conditions for creativity, providing support and stability and then stepping back and letting these organisations establish their own authentic presence at street level.’

Capital & Centric’s Heatley describes Sheffield as a city that ‘should naturally have some national cultural institutions such as a Tate gallery’. He adds: ‘It’s always been strong with artists – from music to sculpture – so amplifying that would be a good avenue. It would be a unique and authentic roadmap, rather than a carbon copy of other northern cities.’

‘Sheffield has always been strong with artists – from music to sculpture – so amplifying that would be a good avenue’

That uniqueness is something that Claire Thornley of Eleven Design also yearns for.

‘The Sheffield of my early adulthood with its visionary (and affectionately named) architecture is long gone,’ she says. ‘The Egg Box (Town Hall), the Wedding Cake (registry office), along with Castle Market and the incredible/bonkers Hole in the Road are places that gave me a sense of what a city could look like.

‘Today, though, the city looks like any other. And yet, we pride ourselves on being different. I’d like to see a return to ambition and imagination for our city centre (and beyond), and that doesn’t mean high-rise apartments and bloated retail centres, but something unique to us – edgy, creative, green, human.’

Photo by Yiming Zhou

Perceptions may change as the scaffolding comes down on the latest wave of development. Sean McClean, head of capital delivery service at Sheffield City Council, recognises that people have had to wait for a reinvigorated town centre and shares the ‘frustration at the pace of change [though] much of this has been out of our control’.

He adds: ‘It’s interesting when we show people from outside Sheffield around HoC II and other projects we are delivering. They’re far more impressed than people might think from some of the more negative comments we sometimes see locally.

‘However, we probably need to accept the true impact [of the regeneration efforts] will still take another 12-18 months to have effect.’



What now for the John Lewis store, a much-loved Modernist masterpiece? asks Simon Chadwick, undergraduate programme director at Sheffield School of Architecture

In June 2021, John Lewis Partnership (JLP) decided to close its Sheffield branch at Barker’s Pool, ending a retail legacy stretching back to 1963 on its current site – and to 1847 on the previous site in Fargate under the original Cole Brothers name.

There was an outcry from the city’s citizens. They memorialised the store’s contribution to their city by attaching hundreds of messages to its darkened shop windows. The closure brought Sheffield into the centre of the national debate on the future of the high street.

Designed by YRM (Yorke Rosenberg Mardall) in 1962, the John Lewis building was one of the first of its type to be built in the UK. The adoption of the core principles of European Modernism and the inclusion of the ‘white tile’ style provided a direct line of provenance to the office of Le Corbusier where Eugene Rosenberg had been employed as a student in the late 1920s, and specifically to the 1933 Cité de Refuge building in Paris.

Though there were letters in the local press insisting the building should be demolished, a hardy group of Sheffielders from Hallamshire Historic Buildings, Sheffield Society of Architects, Sheffield Civic Trust, the Twentieth Century Society and others, campaigned to save the building.

On 10 August 2022, the building was Grade II listed. Two months before this, its owner, Sheffield City Council, had put out a call for expressions of interest for the development of the site (‘Sheffield Council seeks proposals for YRM-designed former John Lewis building’ AJ 16.06.22).

To keep the public debate alive within the city, and to make sure local voices were heard by those deciding its future, the society of architects and the civic trust held the Cole Bros. Future Fit Design Summit in early September.

Ensuring the building has a viable long-term future will require collaboration and commitment from multiple stakeholders. Sheffield has some excellent precedent in this area.

In 2016, Sheffield Hallam University had the vision and perseverance to work with city partners to breathe new life into the derelict Central Post Office building, creating a new home for Sheffield Institute of Arts and saving the finest Edwardian building in the region.

The former John Lewis store could also have an excellent future as a building for education, with the upper floors providing an excellent environment for studios, workshops and teaching space of all kinds. A collaboration between both of Sheffield’s universities might be required to enable this.

A further investment from Sheffield City Council could shape a more appropriate location for the city library and the Graves Art Gallery. The gallery is currently marooned on top of the existing city library, offering exhibition space to just a fraction of the city’s collection. Instead, it could inhabit the ground floor of the John Lewis building, bringing a major civic asset to an important public space and providing an appropriate neighbour to the City Hall.

There is much to do, but if we keep folk talking and the citizens of Sheffield involved, we’ve a greater chance of making good use of a much-loved Modernist masterpiece.
Additional research provided by Robin Hughes of Hallamshire Historic Buildings