All department stores will become museums

Posted by Derek Mason

28th February 2023

Picture credit: Denis LORAIN on Unsplash

Demolition vs reuse: what’s the right approach for the UK’s vacant department stores?

Should we be demolishing vacant department stores? Regardless of what you think of the appearance of many of our historic shopping emporiums, it would certainly be better for the planet for us to look at reuse or retrofit, rather than demolition.

In the case of the Cole Brothers store in Sheffield, when John Lewis closed the store, Historic England stepped in and, controversially for some locals, listed the post-war building. It is now safe from demolition, meaning its “white tile” style – which was inherited from Le Corbusier and then spread nationwide – will be preserved.

There may be potential for further stores to be listed. On top of the closing of 16 John Lewis stores and all Debenhams stores during the pandemic, figures show that the UK lost half of its department stores over the last 7 years.

Given that anywhere between a third to a half of a building’s lifetime carbon emissions may occur during construction, demolishing more of the UK’s buildings is going to make it even more challenging to hit our net carbon goals.

But for many people it’s not only about the carbon emissions or even the economics. There’s another cost to demolishing a store that was once at the heart of a town or city.

Restoring a sense of place

In the Departing Stores: Emporia at Risk report, Harriet Lloyd asserts that our department stores should be saved, and new uses found for them. She argues: “In a new era when large-scale retail is no longer sustainable, these fine structures are at risk of dilapidation or even demolition. And as these hubs of daily life are erased from the map, local communities feel increasingly disenfranchised. Protecting and reviving these buildings is not only a matter of preserving precious and distinctive architecture; it is an opportunity to restore a sense of place.”

This raises the question: What shall we use our former department stores for?

Some will be a straight swap. For example, Birmingham’s former Debenhams store is based within the Bullring shopping centre and will become a Marks & Spencer – although there is no word on what the old M&S building will then be used for. The city’s John Lewis is tipped to become a new mixed-use development with offices, a gym, food market, bar and restaurant.

Some stores will be demolished, including Debenhams stores in Derby and Torquay. But there is cause for optimism too.

From department store to university campus

In Gloucester, the University of Gloucestershire has been granted planning permission to turn the former Debenhams in Kings Square into its new city campus. This means the 1930s Art Deco building will be saved and repurposed as a teaching facility.

Reusing the building in this way is predicted to create more than 1,200 jobs and add around £86m to Gloucester’s economy. With nearly 4,000 students and 350 staff using the building, surrounding shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and leisure venues are expected to see the benefit. Not to mention the benefits of the embodied carbon remaining in the building and no demolition costs – financial or environmental.

Other uses for closed department stores include the Edinburgh Debenhams, which is due to become a boutique hotel, the Exeter Debenhams which may become a cinema, and the Liverpool Debenhams which will become a go-karting, bowling and indoor golf venue with an open-air rooftop space.

“All department stores will become museums”

This is not too far away from Andy Warhol’s prediction that “all department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores”. He anticipated the decline of department stores a long time before it came to pass.

I’m not aware of any department store museums yet, but Bournemouth’s Debenhams is now Bobby’s – a retail space and art gallery that hosts community events and makers markets.

It’s a good thing that we’re thinking more about reuse and retrofitting. Hopefully this shows a positive step towards demolition becoming increasingly unfashionable over time. However, a lot of these kinds of decisions are still made based on financial costs rather than environmental impact. There’s still a big shift needed in that area, and it’s likely to require new legislation to put environmental matters front and centre. The question is, do our leaders have the stomach for that?

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