Delivering big box solutions

GCW is helping give former department store buildings a new lease of life.

From apartments to hotels, family entertainment centres to self-storage facilities, some of our towns’ highest profile large vacancies are attracting strong demand and GCW’s expertise puts it in prime position to secure alternative uses to maximise value for its clients.

When Debenhams went into liquidation in December 2020, sealing the fate of its bricks and mortar operations. The future of more than 100 UK retail units hung in the balance. There is no doubt that the high street took a big hit but as we focus on the mixed use regeneration of our town and city centres, a range of new uses are being found for former department store buildings.

GCW has a track record for seeking alternative uses for town centre assets and the team is helping secure a future for a range of former department store buildings.

GCW recently acted on behalf of a propco client on the sale of the former Debenhams building in Norwich. The 110,000 sq ft Orford House, which had traded as a department store for almost half a century, sold with vacant possession to a developer poised to transform the space into a student accommodation- led scheme. The six-floor building was marketed as an iconic repositioning opportunity and represented a rare chance to secure big floorplate space in the heart of the city Centre.

GCW is now marketing a further four former Debenhams units and is in discussion with potential occupiers for a range of uses. There are examples in the market of retailers taking former department store space. Next has taken former Debenhams stores in the likes of Milton Keynes, Watford and the Metro Centre for its Beauty and Home format. Other examples include M&S taking the former Debenhams in Birmingham’s Bullring and The Range opening at the former Debenhams in Bury.

“There aren’t going to be many retailers looking for 70,000 sq ft-plus of space”, said GCW Partner Nick Warr. “These units are far more likely to be repositioned and the market is keen to tap into our town centre expertise and knowledge of non-retail uses. We have already let the Walton-on-Thames Debenhams to children’s activity centre Gymfinity Kids and are seeking solutions for former Debenhams units in Hemel Hempstead, Dunfermline and Welwyn Garden City. In some instances, there are opportunities to subdivide space with some retail on the ground floor and alternative uses like residential and leisure on the uppers. There are plenty of options.”

Big space demand is certainly on the increase post-lockdown. Beyond residential, much of the focus is on leisure as operators look to draw people back into urban centres with experiential offers. Gravity recently took the former Debenhams unit in Wandsworth offering 9 immersive experiences under one roof and cinema operator The Light is transforming the former House of Fraser store in Huddersfield into its own multipurpose leisure destination.

“Add to that list the likes of hotels, gyms, education and health and you get a sense of the opportunities on offer”, said Nick. “We are helping find creative solutions to ensure these larger units provide a vibrant mix of uses and play their part in securing a sustainable future for our town and city centres.”