The current situation

In January 2020, Debenhams vacated its store comprising of over 93,000ft2 of retail space in the city. The premises are impractical for occupation by a single retailer and are significantly under-utilised in their current form, with around 40% of floor space left empty.

It was therefore important that a plan came forward on how such an important city centre site can best be used.

The city council has rightly recognised that the Debenhams department store offers one of the most significant city centre development opportunities in years and our approved plans will deliver a sustainable long-term future for the three sites.

The retail world is undergoing many changes brought about by the internet, but people still want places to visit and to live.

The proposal will redevelop the Debenhams sites fronting the High Street, Guildhall Street, the Buttermarket and Mercery Lane, and create a mix of retail space and residential apartments.

The property – 15-16 Guildhall Street – formerly trading as Cotswold Outdoor is the subject of a sub-lease with Debenhams and is included within the Guildhall Quarter project.

The current ground floor will remain as retail with the upper floors redeveloped into six apartments. Debenhams operated two sites with a total size of 93,525ft2 of which only 59,353ft2 – 63% of the total – was used as retail floorspace.

The existing buildings fronting onto Mercery Lane and Buttermarket are listed Grade II*, and 3-9 Guildhall Street and the Cotswold Outdoor building are listed as Grade II.

The future

The Debenhams store on the High Street, Guildhall Street, the Buttermarket and Mercery Lane will be subdivided into viable retail units – ranging from 1,885ft2 to 10,550ft2 – that accommodate the needs of today’s retail, food service and hospitality businesses.

There is an option for one unit to have a dual frontage onto High Street and Guildhall, and it would be possible to combine other units to provide dual frontage on the High Street/Mercery Lane in the heart of the city.

74 apartments are proposed with 45 on the upper floors of the main Debenhams store on Mercery Lane, the Buttermarket, a further 25 on Guildhall Street, and four above 15-16 Guildhall Street, making use of the under-utilised retail space.

The existing space above the ground floor shops exceeds what was required by Debenhams for retail operations, and will be redeveloped for residential with a proposed mix of one, two and three-bedroomed apartments offering city centre living. To achieve this, some of the buildings will be increased in height by a further two storeys, but with limited visual impact on the current streetscape and skyline.

The former Cotswold Outdoor store was under a sub-lease arrangement with Debenhams, meaning it is also part of the scheme. The ground floor will remain as retail space, with the upper floors redeveloped into four apartments.

The new apartments will help meet the demand for new housing in Canterbury.

The existing buildings with their frontage onto Mercery Lane and the Buttermarket are listed Grade II* and 3-9 Guildhall Street and 15-16 Guildhall Street (the Cotswold Outdoor building) is Grade II listed. We are sensitive to the heritage of the existing buildings and the art deco main frontage of the Debenhams store on Guildhall Street, which is not listed but is popular locally, will be retained within the design of the scheme.

When complete, the buildings will be a maximum of five storeys high, including the ground floor retail space, which is an increase of two floors over the current buildings. The additional floors will be stepped back from the building line to reduce visibility.

Visual impact

The apartments will have a minimal visual impact on the UNESCO World Heritage Site and will only be visible from the High Street, Guildhall Street, Palace Street and Best Lane, with the latter separated by the existing car park. It is important to note that the buildings will not be taller than those on Mercery Lane and the apartments will be shielded by existing buildings.

Karl Elliott, Managing Partner at Clague Architects, said:

“The scheme for the Guildhall Quarter has been developed through a significant analysis of the existing buildings, their condition and their relationship with Canterbury’s world heritage site.

“The design represents a sensitive and characterful vision for this important location in Canterbury that acknowledges the history of its surroundings and their future vitality.”

Parking

In line with Canterbury City Council’s policy on city centre development, the Guildhall Quarter plans do not include dedicated parking for any of the 74 apartments.

Given the size and restrictions of the existing building it is not possible to build in car parking – and to support a healthier environment in terms of air pollution and protect the City’s heritage there will be no car parking linked to the development.

With Canterbury’s rail connections and strong retail offering it is possible for people to live and work locally.

The existing Blue Badge car park accessed by Best Lane is owned by Canterbury CC and will remain, as it is outside the land owned by the development.

The design

The site is a complex mix of levels and materials that has evolved over time and during the various ownerships and uses of the buildings, which have included the Philosophical & Literary Institute, as well as a theatre and a church.

The inspiration for the massing and form of the building was dictated by views into the site – and the need to minimise their visual impact.

The floors overlooking Guildhall Street will have a facetted elevation referencing its former use as the Philosophical & Literacy Institute, and library.

Recognising the historic context of the site, the development will create a series of rooftop gardens on the site of the main Debenhams store inspired by the Medieval courtyards gardens that once stood in its place.

Materials

The architects at Clague created a design using materials that complement the existing and neighbouring buildings.

The aim was to create a series of contemporary buildings that sit well in the context of historic Canterbury, and which don’t mimic it or act as a pastiche. Glazing along with slate and tile hanging will be used to blend with the existing roofscapes.

Nationally Described Space Standards

All of the apartments will meet or exceed the Nationally Described Space Standards. These standards ensure all dwellings are provided with sufficient storage space, bedrooms are correctly sized and the overall floor area exceeds a recommended minimum.

This detailed design work has required careful consideration of the existing built fabric, and will provide high quality and well sized new apartments in the city centre.