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Opinion: Guildford Must Have A Say On The Fate Of Debenhams Site

Published on: 30 Aug, 2020
Updated on: 4 Sep, 2020

From Alistair Smith (Chairman of the Guildford Society)

(The Guildford Dragon NEWS has written to Guildford Borough Council and asked for its views on the future of the Debenhams site and on the Guildford Society proposal.)

Debenhams was reported last year to have a reprieve until January 2021.

The Guildford Society believes the likely redevelopment of the Debenhams site is a unique opportunity to create a vibrant new area and attraction for the town centre to support its transition to a multi-use town centre not one overly dependent on retail.

There needs to be a debate now about what the population of Guildford would like to see happen to the site.

Being able to present ideas to whoever buys the site is important; just getting a block of flats or offices built with limited public use does not do justice to the town or the site. We also need to avoid the site being derelict for years – another North Street.

The Guildford Society has looked at potential uses for the site and options for its redevelopment. To prompt debate, we present ONE idea of what could be achieved.

Debenhams – Possible Sale?

Current information is that the shop is due to close early in 2021. The building on the site has provoked a variety of reactions over the years; the exterior could do with an upgrade at the very least.

The M&G the owners of the site are understood to be selling the site rather than develop it themselves. It is estimated a buyer would have to pay circa £20 – £25m for the site. The site is approximately 0.45Ha and the current building has a floor area of about 21,000sqm.

How the site is used in will have a major impact on the town centre. The site is not mentioned in the Local Plan adopted in 2019. The recently agreed Guildford Economic Regeneration Programme Masterplan Strategy (Masterplan) does identify the site as a key site for consideration. The Masterplan will take at least two-plus years to complete. Plans for the Debenhams site may come forward far more quickly.

Debenhams is one of the most important and influential large sites coming up for development.

The Crossroads of the Town?

The site sits on the old ‘cross road’ of the town, by the Town Bridge influencing the lower High Street, the River Wey and Millmead. It is one of the most important and influential large sites coming up for development in the town centre.

A well considered development would create a more harmonious environment along Millbrook and also in the lower high street.

Options?

The site could be turned to be a park beside the Wey, also providing a measure of flood protection. The cost of the site makes this a very unlikely option.

The site could be totally redeveloped, with dwellings (flats) and commercial space. A total redevelopment would need to be tall to be a viable scheme, eight to 10 stories has been mentioned. As the site is deep there would need to be careful design to ensure sunlight reached flats. But does this solution provide a gain to the citizens of Guildford?

Re-purposing the building as it stands, has considerable merit. This involves reusing the strong frame of the building, re-cladding, and reshaping, and adapting it for a new series of flexible uses. Re-purposing also allows Guildford to show its green and sustainability aspirations.

A Cultural Corridor?
The Guildford Society proposes that serious consideration is given to re-purposing the site to form a multi-purpose attraction to provide a focus for the town.

This would provide an important element in a ‘cultural corridor’ running from the museum – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre – community arts centre (Debenhams) – Electric Theatre – Guildford Academy of Music.

What might a re-purposed Building be used for?

Guildford society’s proposed internal layout for the Debenhams building.

In 2005 several organisations proposed a community arts centre in a new building on the Portsmouth Road car park. The proposal was for a centre, that although having an artistic theme, also supported a range of other activities. It was aimed at being a major attraction, and resource, for citizens of the borough and visitors.

The Debenhams building is larger than the proposed building in 2005, potentially the building could provide flexible accommodation for:

• A gym and cycle hire station
• Small retail outlets
• Restaurant and cafés
• Multipurpose exhibition space – used for visiting exhibitions, loans from other museums etc.
• Interactive space for the games industry
• Arts – exhibition spaces, practice, and lecture rooms
• Library (in 2005 the SCC library service were not averse to moving the library).
• Commercial space – shared flexible office/commercial space, and meeting rooms.
• Dwellings added to the upper floors and roof; replacing the unused areas and plant rooms on the roof.

The Rebuild
A possible scenario would:
• Retain the existing garage and loading bay
• Possibly retain the current escalator stack
• Re-open the lower ground floor
• Utilise the existing retail space
• Revise the roof space
• Re-clad the building and restructure the riverside facade to provide a better pedestrian environment
• Better flood prevention including a ‘signature’ foot bridge from the building for access at time of flooding
• Re-open and widen the pedestrian underpass from the High Street to link the site, riverside, Town Bridge and High Street effectively
• Heating and ventilation to make a carbon neutral building

Debenhams and Millmead.

Is it Viable?
Some serious work would be required on this aspect, but it is worth highlighting.

The 2005 proposals showed that a community centre development could be a viable proposition including building a new building.

The Debenhams site could provide circa 40 generously sized apartments with a potential value of £25m approx., covering the basic acquisition costs for the building.

There is potential funding available e.g. the council had agreement for funding to support the recently scrapped scheme to revise the museum.

The Covid-19 crisis does pose serious problems in determining viability and funding over the short term. Viability may be improved as an effect of the Covid-19 crisis could be the increased use of smaller town centres like Guildford as small hub offices and commercial premises are set up to avoid commuting into cities.

Re-purposing the building is substantially cheaper than redevelopment and quicker.

Next Steps?

The Guildford Society has proposed one view of what a re-purposed building could provide. We would like to hear your thoughts so please let us know at: sitecritical@GuildfordSociety.Org.uk.

We would also like to hear views from local professionals in the arts, commerce and architecture.

If there is a positive response, the Guildford Society will consider a forum to discuss with those interested.

The site is unlikely to be acquired without an indication from the council on its attitude to change of use. We will seek seeking to discover their thinking.

The Debenhams site is an opportunity for the town we should not lose it.

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test 8 Responses to Opinion: Guildford Must Have A Say On The Fate Of Debenhams Site

  1. Tony O'Toole Reply

    August 30, 2020 at 3:17 pm

    Would have been a great building to house Surrey County Council. Smashing security for car parking.

  2. Cllr Ruth Brothwell (R4GV, Worplesdon) Reply

    August 30, 2020 at 6:18 pm

    Alastair,

    I couldn’t agree more and at R4GV, we are taking a strong lead in the Town Centre Masterplan.

    Debenhams probably offers us a huge opportunity to place some much needed housing within the town centre, close to the station – in a sustainable way. It saves us having to use the Green Belt greenfields.

    However, as we consider this, the Unitary Authority debate is hotting up and unless we get this decision right the possibility to do as Guildford wishes might be taken away from us. It is so important to ensure that the residents of Guildford really do keep their voice in order that we can exercise it – especially concerning our housing needs – and the Debenhams site is just one example of exciting times that might be ahead!!

  3. Ian humphries Reply

    August 31, 2020 at 12:58 am

    I think, having rememembered when it was built, in its early days it was an innovation….now it is an eyesore. Huge lot, better to remove, demolish and move on.

    It’s done its time.

  4. Lyn Willis Reply

    August 31, 2020 at 9:56 am

    Whatever you do, for goodness sake get on with it.

    North Street has been an eyesore for years, nothing ever seems to be achieved….lots of talk but no action.

  5. Norah Morden Reply

    August 31, 2020 at 10:40 am

    Debenhams would be an ideal site for an old persons sheltered accommodation as would the empty site on the Portsmouth Road.

    It would be near all the local facilities ie. shops, buses, trains, doctors,theatre etc. and unlike many old peoples homes not in isolated areas away from social contact and public transport.

  6. Mike Forster Reply

    August 31, 2020 at 11:49 am

    I agree with Cllr Ruth Brothwell that the danger is Guildford will lose its voice if a uUnitary authority is created.

    There are many issues where local residents of Guildford need to have a proper say on all aspects in the future of the town.

    We must fight to resist being “taken over” and losing our ability to influence important decisions which will otherwise be taken by faceless wonders in a larger less sympathetic environment.

  7. Julie Verity Reply

    September 4, 2020 at 10:44 am

    I concur wholeheartedly with Lyn Willis… what is wrong with the powers-that-be in Guildford? Although Woking’s high-rise buildings are not attractive or desirable, at least the council seem able to get on and achieve. Woking have the Lightbox, they have great street art, they now have the Performing Arts Library, they are ahead with their plan.

    And Guildford.. what are our council doing?

    To have a future the town is desperately in need of a reason to attract people, especially now the future appears so different from the past idea of relying on shopping to thrill and attract. Vibrant arts and mixed facilities are the way ahead.

  8. Linda Cooper Reply

    September 4, 2020 at 12:18 pm

    What about a Covid-19 safe open-air theatre and marketplace?

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