Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1
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“the people who come here will bring this place alive” — sheaf street cafeteria

“the people who come here will bring this place alive” — sheaf street cafeteria

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Arup, one of the world’s largest engineering consultancies, are still hard at work on a masterplan for the Leeds South Bank, working with Gehl Architects to work out how to place a High Speed Rail station along the Holbeck/Hunslet border by 2033.

Other firms are producing fresh plans and CGIs of Holbeck, reigniting the dormant Urban Village idea after expanses of empty land and buildings changed hands for multiples of millions.

A group calling themselves One Leeds PLC still promise a £1billion investment in a World Trade Center in Hunslet, with construction of one million square foot of offices to begin in early 2017.

And 22 acres of the land they would be building on has just been put up for sale by Carlsberg, with an asking price of £35m for all that once was the Tetley Brewery; Bernard Ginns reports in the Yorkshire Post that at least eleven parties are bidding right now, from the city council to Ikea’s property division, Vastint. Carlsberg say they’ll announce the purchaser by the end of the year, and that they will ‘select a purchaser who will respect the site’s heritage and be proactive in bringing forward a successful, high quality development.’

Maybe, in that case, they should sell it to Laura Wellington. “I’ve been buying lottery tickets,” she says, “But no luck yet.”

A lack of millions might not matter. Money talks, but while it’s talking, Laura, James Abbott-Donnelly and the team in transit at Duke Studios, plus Dave Olejnik and Laynes Espresso, are doing; following the lead of the Tetley by making a mark on the South Bank, hoping it will be deep enough that it can’t be ignored by whatever or whoever comes next.

Sheaf Street Cafeteria by Shang-Ting Peng

Sheaf Street Cafeteria by Shang-Ting Peng

By the time you read this Duke Studios will have permanently unmoored from Munro House, crossed the river and set anchor in John H. King’s Victorian warehouse on Sheaf Street; and Sheaf Street Cafeteria will be two weeks from opening, a collaboration between Duke and Laynes in the front of the building.

“THE MORE TIME WE SPEND AT SHEAF STREET, THE MORE RIGHT IT FEELS”

Investors and developers and pension funds are crunching numbers like so much cereal to hedge their bets on HS2 a) happening and b) paying off, pretty much as they were while Duke Studios were getting busy with cardboard and transforming a floor of Auto Trader’s desolate old HQ into an internationally known creative and co-working space that set a new tone not only for the building, but for how people work together in Leeds; as they were, while Laynes Espresso were scraping old plaster off older brick for eleven hours a day, eleven days a week, until it was done, and determinedly opening at 7am daily until New Station Street was no longer a place people hurried through on their way from the station, but a place people asked for when they got off the train, because that’s what they’d travelled for: the coffee at Laynes; the beer at The Brewery Tap; the cheese board at Friends of Ham.

Both Duke and Laynes were founded only four years ago; they’re babies. In four quick years, though, they’ve become synonymous with a new idea of Leeds: not a baby, but a babe. While far from here twenty-year and hundred-year visions of glass towers and dollaring dreams for the South Bank cross and recross cheap desks in expensive offices, Laura has a clear plan for what Duke can achieve there in just three.

“Bi-folding doors,” she says, and it’s that simple to start. “I would love for the front of the building to have bi-folding doors, so people can sit outside. And that area could be pedestrianised, because that road doesn’t lead anywhere. Then the old cottage opposite could be tidied up and made nice; and the main road here reduced from three lanes of traffic to two. So that’s my vision for three years: bi-folding doors.”

It might sound like a modest vision, but that’s because it’s born of a thoughtful understanding of what the new Duke Studios building on Sheaf Street actually is, and what makes it what it is, and of how the South Bank could be developed, and what it could become. Quickly.

“I want to do lots of things to make the area better,” says Laura. “But the building doesn’t really need anything. The events that we put on here and the people who come here, that’s what will bring this place alive. The building is already incredible, so it doesn’t need much. Whatever we do now will hopefully be to make it extra special.”

What Duke Studios are doing now is already a different level to what was planned for Sheaf Street at first; this was to be Duke II, an expansion from Munro House, but things change, and plans adapt, and the original space is closing as the new opens.

“It wasn’t the plan,” says Laura. “But I’m glad it’s the plan now. It has been hard because we spent the last four years of blood, sweat, tears and triumphs all at Munro House, and it’s really hard thinking we built all that and are now leaving. It is weird. I was showing someone round the other day and they were super-excited by it, and that made me feel a bit sad — it’s four years since we designed the cardboard studios but when people come in it’s still all new to them.

“But the more time we spend at Sheaf Street, the more right it feels. With the residents moving over and trusting us to make this happen, it already feels like home, and it’s lovely that Rabbit Hole and Rising Digital were the first to move here because they were the first residents in Munro House as well.

“For us, this is the next level, and showing what we can do when we’re in control of a whole building, when we can do things the Duke way.”

Sheaf Street Cafeteria by Shang-Ting Peng

Sheaf Street Cafeteria by Shang-Ting Peng

The studios and offices will be the engine room of the building, as they were at Munro House, but with a whole building to go at they’re adding an event space, bar, a hidden sun-trap yard and garden — a Yarden — and the Cafeteria, which in typical Duke way is a collaboration with Laynes Espresso, and in typical Duke way feels like a natural next step, even as it’s a big stride, over the river to the south.

“It just came about from a conversation between me and Laura,” says Dave. “They were thinking of opening something up here themselves, and between us we came up with the idea that Laynes could come in. It’s a little bit on the edge of things down here, and we want to create and establish a destination on a different side of the city to where we are already.”

When Laynes opened in 2011 the challenge of the location was getting anybody among the throng on New Station Street to stop there. At Sheaf Street the challenge is to create a throng along streets that for years were the province of makers of beer on one side of the road and chemicals on the other, until they were all gone.

Dave Olejnik & Laura Wellington at Sheaf Street Cafeteria • by Shang-Ting Peng

Dave Olejnik & Laura Wellington at Sheaf Street Cafeteria • by Shang-Ting Peng

“It’s something I’ve been talking about a lot lately,” says Dave. “Leeds is growing quickly, and I think it’s becoming bigger without yet having the mentality of a big city life. Leeds has always been based around Briggate, and I’m as guilty as anybody of standing at the top of Briggate and complaining that somewhere I want to go is at the other end of town—and it’s really only at the bottom of Briggate. Here, we’re south of the river, but let’s be honest, this is still the middle of the city. Sheaf Street is a ten minute walk from Briggate, and that’s nothing.

“What we’ve got to do is create the destination here that makes people feel like it’s worth the ten minute walk. This place will have the two things that Laynes has needed the most: more space, so people can sit down, and wi-fi, that people can use when they are sat down.

“We’re hoping to make it a destination for the food as much as for the drinks menu. A lot of people are aware of the brunch we do at Belgrave once a month, and we’re going to be serving that style of menu here every day. I still don’t think anyone else in Leeds does that style of food quite like the way we do it. We’ll have more salads and lighter options, baked egg dishes like shakshukas, all the way across to really indulgent sweet French toast.”

What Laynes learned on New Station Street were the steps required to move feet their way, steps that can be retraced and diverted to have the kind of impact on the South Bank that Laynes and Duke had on the North; to be the reasons people go somewhere beyond where they were already, even by only a few steps.

“It took time to grow Laynes,” says Dave. “In the first two years I only had something like twenty days off, because I had to; there wasn’t enough money coming in to have a big workforce. But it grew and it rolled and there we go. I saw an opportunity there with the footfall to go in, and along with Leeds Brewery it had a knock-on effect so the area has become a little thing, a little hub, and I love that. Duke Studios did the same thing at Munro House, and when you saw the gallery and Café 164 and Colours May Vary going in, it created this little hub. And we want to do that again down here.

“If you see a little bit of potential, somebody has to take that first step and start the ball rolling. There is a risk involved, and it may start slow, but we want to really create something in this area. The colleges are moving down here, and all the land is for sale, and I hope people will see the potential in these old buildings, that we can encourage other people to do what we’re doing here.

“The owners of this building have seen the opportunity in our coming here and worked alongside us to make it happen, which I also had at Laynes, and that’s a massive help; you’ve got to have somebody holding the keys that understands the potential, and doesn’t just want to know about percentages and profits. Hopefully whoever does start coming down this way will see that we’re already in here and doing this, and help it become a really good place.”

Sheaf Street Cafeteria by Shang-Ting Peng

Sheaf Street Cafeteria by Shang-Ting Peng

“The city is expanding in this direction,” says Laura. “I live in Brewery Wharf, and I think I have a different sense of the city to a lot of people because I already live and play on this side of the city. You can see how much has changed in the last thirty years, and I think in the next ten years it will be completely different again.

“It would be good to make some contribution to that, or to be able to say that we’re here, and this is what we think should happen. The Tetley have opened the gallery and they’ve grown what they’re doing, and then we’re becoming the next thing, and then I’m sure somebody else will come after us. There are already people asking us about other buildings around here. It’s just a matter of the spaces becoming available, which is why The Carlsberg sale is interesting.

“The stables behind us, where they used to keep the shire horses, that could easily be flipped so you could have entrances along this side, and they could all become independent businesses. You could get The Crown pub back up and running, and some spaces could be kept empty, like Waides Yard and the front of The Tetley, to have big outdoor events that can’t happen anywhere else in the city. The new Academy will be opening soon and they will eventually need a primary school and a nursery, so the old cottage could be converted into a Scandinavian style community hall, for kids and adults as well, and some parks and more child friendly things, because there’s nothing down here like that at all.”

All those things lie beyond the walls and Yarden of Sheaf Street itself, and beyond what Laura and Dave can control. But neither Duke Studios or Laynes Espresso have ever been confined by their spaces, and by making the most of what they can control, they can set the tone for the most of what follows; as long as what follows tunes in.

“We can set a tone here,” says Laura. “And I think we want to set a tone. We want Duke Studios to be more of a European style business, and for Leeds to be more of a European style city; so if we can do more of that here, and set a tone that others want to follow, then that’s great. We have the advantages of being among the first down here, and being a bit out of the way still, so we can be a bit more experimental.

“We’ve shown before what we can do with very low resources, so if you think about what the possibilities are in an unbelievable space like Sheaf Street, it’s incredible. We’re in control of our own destiny here. And we just want to be really great in the things that we do.”

••

Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 26


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