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London Property Developer Buys Debenhams Site For £20m To ‘Unlock Potential’

Published on: 9 Dec, 2020
Updated on: 10 Dec, 2020

By Hugh Coakley

The landmark Debenhams store in the centre of Guildford due to close in the New Year has been bought for £20 million by London property developer Native Land.

The Debenham’s building was built in the 1960s and the site is owned by M&G. In 2018 Debenhams announced the store was to close in 2021.

Bill Stokoe, the Guildford Vision Group chair, said: “I just look forward to the development enhancing its setting and making the riverside even more accessible for people to enjoy.”

(see Letter: As Debenhams dies, there are hopes of a new life for the building and Opinion: Guildford must have a say on the fate of Debenhams site).

Alasdair Nicholls, Native Land chief executive, said: “The store is a perfect opportunity to unlock the potential of land and buildings.”

His company statement said they will be exploring “a range of future development options for the asset, including homes for sale and rent, together with mixed retail and commercial to unlock and enliven the river frontage”.

Some regard the Debenham’s building architecture as iconic.

There was no mention of arts and community use and this is likely to frustrate many who see the central site as ideal for wider social activities as well as residential and commercial space.

Zoe Franklin

Zoe Franklin, Guildford’s Lib Dem Parliamentary spokesperson, said: “It is disappointing the sale to a luxury residential developer suggests this may no longer be possible to realise.

“But I don’t believe all is lost and I sincerely hope Native Land will follow the lead of Guildford Borough Council.

“Particularly with the North Street regeneration project, they have shown a real willingness and ability to help a developer work in partnership with the community for the benefit of all Guildfordians.”

Aerial view of the Debenhams site, close to the High Street and the River Wey.

Alistair Smith, the Guildford Society chair, said: “This is an opportunity to provide for a community multi-use facility that would help maintain the vibrancy of the town where retail needs to be supplemented by other attractions. This use doesn’t preclude dwellings being built on the upper floors.”

He said with a lack of clear policies on development in the town, that producing “a draft town centre master plan to guide how the centre will evolve” before it was too late was critical.

Mr Smith added that rumours persist “one developer could make Debenhams work only by building to 20 storeys”.

The site, with the river on two sides, is prone to flooding. Mr Smith said the developer “will require an innovative approach” to successfully navigate the planning for a residential building.

Guildford is something of a new approach for Native Land, their website showing they have worked mainly in London up to now.

Their statement said: “The acquisition is part of Native Land’s strategy to identify redevelopment opportunities in fundamentally strong UK towns and cities, to reposition retail assets at a time when urban centres are rethinking the future of their high streets amid continued challenges from online retailers.”

With the downturn in the high street and remote working accelerated by Covid reducing demand for office space, the site is likely to be more residential rather than offices or retail.

The attraction of the central, riverside location and the price tag for the 1.4 acre (0.6 hectare) site may push the cost of apartments to the higher end of the market.

Cllr John Rigg

Borough Cllr John Rigg (R4GV, Holy Trinity), lead for major projects, said: “The Debenhams site is one of the most important and iconic in the borough. We want any redevelopment to be of the highest possible architectural merit and include improvements to the public realm with greater riverside access.

“We want to further enhance our historic town centre and rejuvenate the riverside. We look forward to working with the developer, who we hope will produce something very special.”

A spokesperson for Native Land said it was too early to decide whether to rebuild or convert the building, adding: “Our ambition is to always deliver high-quality development appropriate to its location and community.”

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Responses to London Property Developer Buys Debenhams Site For £20m To ‘Unlock Potential’

  1. M Durant Reply

    December 11, 2020 at 11:51 pm

    They should keep a café overlooking the river, have some retail and maybe flats on the top floor. They could add an art gallery, promoting contemporary art, crafts in the area like the Oxo Tower in London.

    I am very sad the café has been closed, all the nice staff that lost their jobs.

    I know people think the building is ugly but I have good memories, of the store. I bought my first clothes there as a child, so am sad to see it go.

    I can say the same of the boathouse, the river without the boathouse looks dead. I don’t go walking there anymore, it looks run down with the towpath bridge over the weir closed.

    Also, with so many people losing their jobs, facing uncertainty, no Europeans coming to the UK thanks to the pandemic and Brexit it would be great if they started building more affordable homes instead of luxury flats that cost a fortune. I wonder who is going to be able to to buy an expensive flat or to rent one.

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