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Sheffield architects propose answers to failing city centre

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Steve Parnell reports on how the Sheffield Society of Architects took the initiative and organised a charrette to rethink its struggling retail centre

Despite many years of procrastination and negotiation, last July’s announcement that Hammerson was pulling the plug on developing the Sevenstone retail quarter – Sheffield’s version of Liverpool One – came as no surprise to the city’s sceptics

The recession hit as soon as the area defined for the New Retail Quarter (NRQ) had been emptied of its retail by a blitz of compulsory purchase orders. The centre has been left in a sorry state ever since – at the mercy of pop-ups and stop-gaps with shop windows dressed up belying the void like a corpse’s cosmetics.

To address this problem, the Sheffield Society of Architects invited the city’s architects to a charrette with the aim of proposing ideas to revive Sheffield’s centre. Among those involved were HLM, Hadfield Cawkwell Davidson, Norton Mayfield, Studio Gedye, Axis, Marsh Grochowski, Robin Ashley, Coda Studios and academics from Sheffield University, including Satwinder Samra and Russell Light.

Introducing the event, Julian Dobson of Urban Pollinators said Blairite language like ‘New Retail Quarter’ missed the huge opportunity that presented itself for Sheffield to define the first of a new model of city centres – rather than the last of the old.

The design brief was divided into seven themes and each group allocated one: identity and uniqueness; spaces and places; connectivity; quality; top-end market offer; beyond retail; phasing and risk. The site assigned was specifically the boundary of the NRQ, which adjoins the popular Peace Gardens to the east, The Moor pedestrian shopping zone to the south, an impromptu car park to the west, and the sacrosanct John Lewis to the north.

The potential site extends across the entire city centre from The Moor, which currently looks like a mouth with more gaps than teeth, to the Castle Market – itself awaiting extraction.

The architects’ main non-shopping thinking was founded on Sheffield’s perceived identity as a city of independent thinkers, alongside events like Doc/Fest (claimed as the Cannes for documentaries), Grin Up North (a large comedy festival), and Tramlines (an independent urban music festival). Visitors to these events say that one reason why they love visiting Sheffield is its public space.

A key theme for the designers was to make the centre a destination for people from within Sheffield and from further afield for reasons other than shopping. One proposal was to encourage the council and owners to allow the temporary occupation of a building.

Sheffield Society of Architects' charrette

Sheffield has historically focussed on gold and steel routes through the city. But the spaces and places group proposed a circuit, interspersed by existing and new public spaces with active frontages. This simple, realistic proposal may be surprisingly effective at consolidating a sense of place out of an incoherent, pockmarked centre.

Meanwhile, the connectivity group proposed an additional ‘green’ route, linking the Peak District to the centre by greening Ecclesall Road and Charter Row up to the anachronistic Charter Square. It also proposed an improved link with Meadowhall via a greened Don Valley, astutely noting that the centre should not compete with the mall, but embrace it – especially considering High Speed 2 is currently planned to stop there.

The quality group picked up on the lacklustre Sheffield Central Library and Graves Art Gallery, which was state of the art for the 1930s, but noted what a new 21st-century library could add to the centre. The existing library could be converted into an improved gallery to complement a conference centre which was proposed over the road by the top-end market offer group.

Several interested parties from Sheffield City Council arrived to comment on the proposals at the end of the day, including its head of regeneration Simon Ogden, the cabinet minister for sport Isobel Bowler, and the interim head of planning Maria Duffy. All seemed to accept the sentiment of the proposals.

The temporary use idea, for example, is currently in progress under the code name Reuse Sheffield. And coincidentally, the very same day at MIPIM, the council announced that it was going to be leading the city centre development by setting up an investment fund to search for several partners, rather than be under the influence of a single large developer like Hammerson again. Ogden noted that if independents could revitalise the city centre, then they would have done so by now, and threw the words ‘high-end retail’, ‘anchors’, and ‘hard-nosed developer’ into another sentence.

Nevertheless, the reception of the afternoon’s envisioning was definitely positive, and the subsequent announcements affirm much of the thinking that has been going on in the city. If Sheffield wants to grow up from being Britain’s largest village, it could do worse than asserting its independence from pre-boom debt-fuelled retail consumption and become one of the new city centre models.

Sheffield Society of Architects' charrette

Sheffield Society of Architects’ charrette

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