Bringing back the buzz

Yorkshire Business Insider, April 2003

The Winter Garden is the most visible symbol yet of Sheffield's renaissance. Tim Chapman surveys the changes and weighs the Steel City's rediscovered confidence

With over 2,000 plants sheltering from the South Yorkshire elements under its arched roof of glass and larch, the new Winter Garden is a vivid symbol of growth in a tough climate. Situated between the award-winning Peace Gardens and Millennium Galleries, and replacing the not universally loved eggbox extension of the Victorian town hall, the 5.5 million glasshouse seems to encapsulate the new buzz in Sheffield.

Sheffield, as even its natives admit, does not have a reputation for being an attractive place to live and work. Even before the post-war planners poured concrete over much of the city centre, Orwell noted in 'The Road to Wigan Pier' that it could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World.

Changing that perception has been one of the key challenges for pioneering urban regeneration company Sheffield One. The Winter Garden is just part of the 120 million Heart of the City project to bring new life to the city centre; and that in turn is just part of Sheffield One's ten-year Masterplan.

Just over two years after its unveiling to a sceptical world, chief executive Alison Nimmo says that the Masterplan is very much on track.

"The Heart of the City is all looking pretty stunning now, but we have a big hole in the ground next to that so that's where our focus is," she says. That gap will be filled with a four- or five-star hotel, for which McDonalds has secured planning permission, and around 100,000 sq ft of quality office space from development partner CTP St James.

"They've really picked up this project and made very good progress, working hard and sourcing the right quality of anchor tenants," Nimmo says. "We hope Number One Peace Gardens will be the best office building Sheffield has ever seen. We're doing a lot of detailed work on that at the moment, and that and the new hotel will be coming out of the ground later this year."

Reaction to the Winter Garden has been highly enthusiastic, from the national media to the local business community.

"To have something like the Winter Garden as a focal point to the city centre, I think is fantastic," says Paul Firth, managing partner for law firm DLA in Sheffield. He is however sceptical about some aspects of Sheffield One's proposals. "Certain projects, particularly the e-campus, I just can't see happening," Firth says. "My view is masterplans look very nice on paper but you can't buck a market and you can't create a market where there isn't a market. There's a danger of Sheffield One being too prescriptive in what kind of developments and occupiers they want."

Although there is something of the grand folly about what is basically a giant inner-city greenhouse, the Winter Garden's high profile can do much for the city's wider economy.

"People spend their leisure time in city centres at the weekend and they want a good range of attractive retail offerings there and some attractive cultural attractions to visit," says Susan Johnson, executive director business development at Yorkshire Forward with overall responsibility for South Yorkshire. "Sheffield will have that sort of offering in bucketloads when the development is finished. The city needs and is striving for that city buzz which will keep the young people here, to encourage them to get jobs here, and also attract other new people in for the new industries we're developing."

The buzz should be further enhanced by the proposed New Retail Quarter, a 400 million redevelopment of 20 acres of prime shopping space from Barker's Pool down to Moorhead, from Trafalgar Street to Pinstone Street. The scheme, led by developers Hammerson and English Partnerships, will be anchored by John Lewis, who will move into new 250,000 sq ft flagship store on Carver Street, at the western end of a new covered square linked to the Peace Gardens.

"The new retail quarter is one of the biggest projects we're doing," says Nimmo. "There's a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes in terms of design and the legals, all the stuff people don't see. English Partnerships and Hammerson are both very active in acquiring key sites in the retail quarter - we estimate we've got about 60 per cent of the site in what we call friendly hands."

The planning application for the scheme, which will provide at least 650,000 sq ft of retail space plus up to 200 apartments and leisure facilities, is expected to be submitted at the end of the summer, with actual development not due for another three years. The proposals have already won and Architectural Review Future Project award at MIPIM for its architects, Building Design Partnership, and agents report initial interest from retail operators.

"To a great extent the retail quarter, because of its commercial attractiveness, will be facilitated by the private sector," notes Johnson. "The need for public sector interventions is very much at the margins."

The new quarter will help resolve the lack of focus in Sheffield's retail heart, which currently straggles over the length of the Moor and Fargate. "With a constant stream of new business developments in progress, it's hardly surprising that retail and leisure names are finally taking an interest in Sheffield," notes Matthew Barnsdale of Lambert Smith Hampton. "But in order to attract custom and fully capitalise on this space, the physical face of the city centre will also have to change. The linear nature of the existing retail core, which has created two separate and poorly connected shopping districts, remains something of a mental barrier for shoppers."

"The city centre is struggling because it has a huge prime pitch - it's long and thin," adds Alex Munro, retail and leisure partner at Knight Frank. "The macro economy of Sheffield is quite healthy, and will stimulate the demand that's needed to kickstart the scheme. They have a lot of land to assemble but with everything else going on in Sheffield, it is reasonable."

The retail quarter will be linked to the thriving Devonshire Quarter by a mixed-use redevelopment of the area around the City Hall and Barkers Pool. City Hall itself will enjoy a 12.5 million transformation into a state-of-the-art cultural venue and conference centre, and work is due to start on a 20m redevelopment of the former education offices on Leopold Street.

The trend for city living is also becoming established. Last year saw around 1200 apartments completed, with another 1000 in the pipeline. The West One development at Devonshire Green by City Estates is the largest, with 465 units. At the other side of the city centre, Cala Homes has applied for planning permission for a 13-storey residential development at St Mary's Gate, on the inner ring road at the tip of the Cultural Industries Quarter.

The office market is generally on the up, despite Carillion's failure to yet secure a pre-let for its proposed 250,000 sq ft development at Castlegate, which Nimmo calls the major inward investment site in the city.

Recent arrivals include the Home Office, taking 22,000 sq ft at Riverside Exchange - a move cynics might attribute to the influence of David Blunkett. "At the moment, demand for city centre stock is a little bit sporadic - demand is very strong but only from a couple of occupiers," says Tim Bottrill, surveyor at Knight Frank in Sheffield. "Having said that, there is only one spec development office building available in the city centre - Ruskin Buildings, arguably the best building in Sheffield for quite a while. We do have interest for another 200-300,000 sq ft."

Headline rents are typically around 14/sq ft and rising, among the lowest in the country for a major city and almost 10/sq ft cheaper than central Leeds. "We don't have the flashy sort of occupiers, the more entrepreneurial companies and big firms of accountants that require huge glass-fronted office buildings," Bottrill notes. "It's back office functions, and there's nothing wrong with that. Sheffield from a property developer's point of view is a good place to invest because it has a very stable take-up, combined with the uplift of rental levels, and also the grant funding available to release sites and to act as an incentive to occupiers."

Back in 1937, when Orwell wondered if Sheffield was the world's ugliest town, he added: "its inhabitants, who like to be pre-eminent in everything, very likely do make that claim for it." Sheffielders might still have the same gobby attitude, but if Sheffield One and its developer partners continue to come up with the goods, they should soon have a prouder boast: that Sheffield has fair claim to be the most exciting and striking of cities.

Little mesters of new media
In the 19th and early 20th century, the streets to the south-east of the city centre were the province of the little mesters, the artisans of the cutlery and toolmaking industries. This was a vibrant community of highly skilled and self-employed workers, providing specialised services that underpinned Sheffield's reputation for innovation and industry.

Today the little mesters have gone, apart from a handful working out of the Kelham Island Industrial Museum. But their former homes, in purpose-built buildings and courtyards of artisans' dwellings and workshops, are being given new life - in many cases, to house the 21st century artisans of the creative and new media industries.

The area now lies within the Cultural Industries Quarter (CIQ), three-quarters of a square mile in the heart of Sheffield that is home to the largest concentration of the creative and digital industry (CDI) in the Yorkshire region.

"What we've got is a mini-cluster which is representative of businesses across the rest of Sheffield, with over 100 creative and digital businesses employing around 1000 people," says Martin Manning, director of the CIQ Agency. "The research suggests that jobs in content creation will be created four times as fast as in IT infrastructure, and one of the things Sheffield is good at is content creation."

The CIQ Agency is heading efforts to develop the cluster by providing suitable broadband-enabled premises and business support, organising networking and marketing programmes, and generally promoting Sheffield as a UK-leading location for CDI businesses.

The quarter is starting to generate some genuine buzz, Manning says. "Part of the issues for this particular sector is we need to network people effectively and develop this feeling of cooperation rather than just competition. We're talking to e-learning companies at the moment about developing a South Yorkshire brand so we can cluster companies at key conferences, and starting to move on to major commercial alliances and joint branding for major contracts."

A designated conservation area, the CIQ has already attracted 100m in investment, with another 90m in the pipeline. Recent developments include new studios for BBC Radio Sheffield; the UK's first ever purpose-built complex of artists' studios at Persistence Works; and Derwent Housing's 5 million residential redevelopment of the Classical Revival landmark Columbia Place.

Further development of the quarter's historic heart now has the support of the Townscape Heritage Initiative, a 4 million programme backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Objective One, and SRB funding. The initiative provides grants for sensitive renovation of historic buildings to bring them back into use in a way that benefits the local economy.

"We put together a case that says we've got some great old buildings in the CIQ where these buildings were originally set up as workshops for the little mesters, but now have effectively lost their role - wouldn't it be great if we could use the THI money to bring back some of these buildings so they're suitable for creative 'little mesters'?" says Manning. "Over the next five-year period, around 20 buildings will be brought back into use with some support from the THI fund, so we can deal with some of the architectural features which would usually be ignored by people redeveloping."

Work has begun on the first few buildings under the scheme. Scotia Works on Leadmill Road is under development by the Ethical Property Company to provide education facilities for leaders from socially excluded communities. Repair work has also started at the Grade-II* listed Butcher Works on Arundel Street, which Manning says will be the most challenging of the 21 identified projects, to convert the former cutlery and tool works into a mixed-use development.

Manning also hopes to link the CIQ with Sheffield One's proposed e-Campus, using that scheme to attract a major company in the sector.

"The problem is most CDI businesses in South Yorkshire are SMEs or micro-businesses," he says. "We don't have any major names and it would be good to bring in someone who could raise the level of the game in South Yorkshire so we have a major name who could act as a content aggregator or distribution channel."

Sheffield One's vision for the e-Campus has been drastically reduced from the original plan for a one million sq ft park covering the site of the city bus station, after the development agencies failed to strike an agreement with the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. The current proposals cover around 4.5 acres of land acquired by Yorkshire Forward fronting Sheaf Street.

"There will be an e-campus in Sheffield - we haven't been able to unlock as much of the site as we would have hoped, so we're looking at flexing the concept," says Alison Nimmo of Sheffield One. "What we're looking to do is linking it much more closely to what's happening in the Cultural Industries Quarter, as part of the strategy to deliver the creative and digital cluster in Sheffield."