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John Lewis: Can housing plans revitalise Aberdeen city centre?

John Lewis has announced plans to turn some of its sites into housing.
John Lewis has announced plans to turn some of its sites into housing.

The site of the north-east’s last department store could be turned into housing as part of plans to breathe new life into Aberdeen city centre.

Last week John Lewis confirmed it would not reopen its store on George Street, despite a campaign to save it.

However, the chain has now suggested it could move into the housing market by constructing “build-to-rent” properties at sites it owns across the country.

Although it is not yet known whether the Aberdeen store – a 200,000 square-metre unit backing onto the Bon Accord shopping centre – is one of those under consideration, the idea has been suggested as a possible way of revitalising the beleaguered city.

John Lewis announced earlier this year that it would close its Aberdeen branch.

‘Modern ideas are a good thing’

Derren McRae, head of commercial property adviser CBRE’s Aberdeen office, said it “would be great to see it happen in the city centre”.

But he believes other possibilities, such as the building being taken over by leisure businesses, could also help turn its fortunes around.

“Ultimately John Lewis own the building, so it is up to them what they do next,” Mr McRae said. “In most cases they would put the building on the market but it will be interesting to see if there is some sort of scheme.

Derren McRae, head of CBRE Aberdeen and Aberdeen Inspired board member.
Derren McRae, head of CBRE in Aberdeen.

“It is encouraging. The Point development [on Schoolhill] was completed last year – that was the first build-to-rent scheme in the city centre and it has been quite successful.

“It’s a fairly modern, simple way of creating good quality homes. For example in communal areas, you don’t have to get all the private tenants to agree.”

“We are also seeing a surge in the growth of the leisure sector,” he added. “We are seeing a lot of large ‘box footprint’ units taken up by things like bowling or indoor golf, which is something which could also be considered.

“Modern ideas growing in Aberdeen is a good thing.”

Lack of demand for retail space

Converting the building could be an option given fears have already been expressed over the likelihood of it selling.

The scale of the site led to concerns earlier this year that it would lie empty for a long period of time.

However, if it becomes residential properties it would ensure it is occupied.

“It is a big challenge to get one retailer to take a building of that size on,” Mr McRae said.

“We’ve already seen with Debenhams and BHS that there isn’t an appetite for it. Every city is facing the same problem of there not being demand for large retail space.

“Changing the use of the building – whether that is refurbishing it or knocking it down and starting again – is a huge investment but it has got to be done.”

It is not yet known how many homes would be included in any development, but one local architect suggested it would be possible to create around 100 flats in the existing building while retaining the ground floor for retail use.

‘Unique building should be retained’

Dr Maggie Bochel, the former head of planning for Aberdeen City Council and now a joint-owner of consultancy firm Aurora, said she would like to see the “unique” building retained.

“The current Local Development Plan policy does presume against the change of use from retail to other uses within the city centre retail core, unless it can be demonstrated that they meet a range of criteria,” Ms Bochel, who along with colleague Pippa Robertson last week urged council chiefs to do more to support city centre recovery, said.

“However, given that those criteria include that the new use contributes to the wider aims of the city centre masterplan, which itself aims to encourage city centre living for which it recognised that there is strong demand, then I’d hope that the change of use would be supported.

“It is though a unique building in the city, and has recently been assessed by Historic Environment Scotland as having elements of special architectural interest, and so it would be good if it could be retained, rather than being demolished, which I’m sure a good architect would be able to achieve.”

Pippa Robertson and Maggie Bochel of Aurora Planning.

Ms Bochel added the possibility of housing on the site “should be welcomed”.

“Clearly it’s disappointing that John Lewis won’t be reopening given that it was an important anchor store for the city, but I’d hope that the principle of housing on the site would be welcomed, both in terms of bringing people to live in the city centre and in terms of making use of a brownfield site, before a greenfield site, for new housing,” she said.

“The challenges may be in the structure and layout of the building itself in terms of it being able to be converted in such a way as to provide the level of amenity required by the council.

But as we’ve said before, that may need the council to think a bit differently about what constitutes amenity for those people who choose to live in the city centre.”

Chain wants to address ‘housing shortage’

Last week it was confirmed John Lewis will not be reopening in Aberdeen, despite public pressure and a taskforce being set up by city leaders.

However, although it is yet to confirm whether the George Street branch is one of the locations earmarked for housing, that partnership has announced its ambitious plans to build 10,000 homes in the coming years – many at existing sites.

The chain said it aims to address the “national housing shortage” while also creating job opportunities and giving it a stable income.

“As a business driven by social purpose, we have big ambitions for moving into property rental,” Nina Bhatia, executive director of strategy and commercial development at the partnership, said.

“Typically a developer might try and maximise returns and then move onto the next one,” Chris Harris, the partnership’s property director, added.

“We are not trying to do that. We are aiming to charge a fair rent and to stay for the long haul.”

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