“hang on a minute, i don’t have to go home” — nalin seneviratne, sheffield city councilBack
One of our unorthodox strategies for ignoring the Grosvenor is to stand at Furnival Gate and gaze past it at the top of the Pepperpot building, as if the Grosvenor simply wasn’t there.
We like to stand and look and imagine what the Pepperpot might have looked like back when it wasn’t a pot but a spire, and wonder whether there might be a shop somewhere out on Abbeydale Road that could sell us a pepperpot for our table in the shape of the Pepperpot building, or in the shape of a spire.
Such contemplation always makes us hungry and thirsty, and when we feel hungry and thirsty we think of The Harley, and start to contemplate Jalapeño Business Fries and a laced Peanut Butter Wolf shake; and when we get hungry we snap out of our pepperpot dreams, listen to our stomachs, and head for The Harley.
We can’t be the only questers. Okay, so perhaps not everybody is out for The Harley; perhaps they should be. But when we spoke to Nalin Seneviratne, Director of Capital and Major Projects at Sheffield City Council and the man currently driving plans for the Sheffield Retail Quarter, we found out that he knows our struggle; knows what it’s like just trying to get across town to get something to eat.
“I will never forget saying to my wife after getting the job, come on, let’s go and have a look at Sheffield and see where we’ll be living from now on,” he says. “We stayed at the Hilton, and parked the car there one cold, dank February evening. We didn’t want to eat at the hotel – we thought we’d go and eat in the city centre. But as we walked around the streets near the hotel, we thought – where the heck do you eat in this place? Eventually we stumbled across Leopold Square, but there was nothing around to signpost that it was there.
“Sheffield is interesting from my perspective as a bit of an incomer. I’ve been here for six years now, so I’ve learnt that Sheffield has its hidden gems – once you’ve been here for a while you kind of get it.
“Another example is getting to Sheffield University campus and Weston Park Museum. It’s a fabulous asset to the city, but although it’s a stone’s throw from the centre people don’t appreciate just how close it is. If it’s not familiar, if you don’t understand the route from A to B, it can feel further than it really is.”
So it’s not just us. And we kind of get it, too; we get that we want to get to those Business Fries. But it’s getting there to get them that’s the problem, and so far, Nalin’s all sympathy and not much help.
Our first instinct is always to turn towards Charter Square – The Harley is somewhere roughly over behind that way – but we have a terminal attraction to the subway (it helps us forget that Charter Square is too much roundabout to be a square) and when we rise again from the steps to find we’ve only made it as far as Telephone House, or worse that we turned wrong and have come out at Debenhams, it’s too demoralising too early in our journey.
So we try instead to walk closely in the shadow of the valley of the Grosvenor, never once looking up, until we’re at the door of the Casbah, or the bottom of Backfields, or round the back of John Lewis, or being ordered out of The Benjamin Huntsman for trying to barge our way through their kitchen and back to the right path.
Like all great journeys, sometimes it’s hardest to know where to begin.
The new Sheffield Retail Quarter scheme begins where the old retail quarter – Sevenstone – ends; or halfway through Sevenstone’s beginning, to put it another way. The overlaps are hard to fathom, because the beginnings of Sevenstone meant the end of a lot of old buildings above the line of Wellington Street, while Sevenstone itself never actually got going.
So where are we, and where to begin? “ I think there’s an important thing to remember about Sheffield Retail Quarter,” says Nalin. “Over the years, time has allowed separation of these two things, but actually they’re part of the same: part of the Heart of the City, which as a concept and a project started back around 1994. Over time elements of the Heart of the City project have been delivered, but probably the only thing that hasn’t been delivered is the retail quarter.
“What was spelt out then is still relevant today: that we’re looking at the lack of a full retail offer in the city centre. And the new retail quarter was designed then and is designed now to provide the full retail mix that a city the size of Sheffield should have, while still being complementary to Meadowhall.
“For me, in terms of that empty space, it’s about making sure that we create and fulfil what was planned originally, and deliver the Heart of the City in all its glory.”
The new Retail Quarter scheme represents starting again from the start, but Nalin is confident that this time the story will have a conclusion. Mainly because the council have written more of the script already than they ever have before.
“IT ALL WORKS AT THE STREET LEVEL, AND THAT’S THE TRICK”
“Some people might ask why we’ve gone as far as we have in terms of scheme design. We’ve done it so that, number one, we start from a position of understanding how the city works. The grain of the street pattern, the scale of buildings in the city, the quality of the public realm; what works on the street level and works with the city.
“So what we have is a scheme that is befitting of the city, and financially viable, so that as we go into the process of finding a development partner we know we have something that we have tested and consulted and really kicked the tyres of big style, so we can stand up and confidently say that this works.
“If somebody comes along with something that is even better then great, let’s look at it, let’s see what it is and test it. But it’s not as though this is the only scheme there has been over the last sixteen years. So many different plans have been looked at and been tested, that has all been done over a long period of time. So we’ve designed this scheme to this stage because, critically, we want to see this delivered.”
The scheme going out to public consultation is, in its simplest form, “lines on paper and a 3D printed model,” because the detailed design work will happen once public opinion has been heard and a development partner brought on board. But what the lines and the model bring to life for the public’s consideration is not yet a vision of coming architecture, but an interlinked grid of streets and spaces out of which architectural edifices will grow, in the case of the new buildings; change, in the case of the kept; and go, in the case of the going – so long, Grosvenor.
There are no paths, and that’s the thing; that’s why it’s so easy to let our bearings spin and decide that through is as easy as around, or over. When we try to go for the most direct course, we have to veer off the grid anyway. Beyond Backfields, from Wellington Street to Division Street, as far as Trafalgar Street and Devonshire Green, our manoeuvres are restricted by low fences, high hoardings, parked cars, moving traffic, broken tarmac and the whims of the elements.
Back in the day, if you were brave and good at dressing up, you could have negotiated part of this journey along warm, dry corridors, disguised in the comforting garb of a fireman; we, too frail and shy for such hurly-burly, settled for scurrying without cover across the Wellington Street car park and resting on the other side by making a seat of the old fire station’s castle-ruin remains.
“The workshops we did with the Academy of Urbanism at the end of 2013 were all about how people interact with this environment, how they walk across the topography of existing streets, how people operate as human beings. That has really come out in the scheme,” says Nalin; but as you gaze about you from Rockingham Street, it’s difficult to see what environment he means. But people do move around, around here. And they don’t do it up in the air, but on old, hard, paved streets.
“Because of the topography previous schemes have proposed two level shopping malls,” says Nalin, “With deck access, bridges, all those things. Whereas this is a completely level, accessible scheme, straight from the streets into the shops. It all works at the street level, and that’s the trick we’ve managed to pull off with this design concept – how it works with the topography.
“Some retailers we’ve talked to have asked about it becoming a covered mall, and we’ve said no. This is not about a covered mall. We are looking at some level of cover, and the design team are working out where that could be incorporated in a sympathetic way. But this is street based, based on the old Victorian grid pattern but also extending from the medieval at Fargate.
“The integration of Fargate, Division Street, Charter Square and The Moor is crucial, and that’s why we’re doing analysis and working on the evolving design to make sure we’re thinking through what might need to happen on this corner or that corner, to make it attractive in some way, to make it take someone’s eye and make them want to explore what’s around the corner.
“Creating spaces is really important, and then being able to navigate between places like Barker’s Pool, Peace Gardens, the new Charter Square, Devonshire Green. Excuse the comparison, but when you go to places like Venice or Florence and you visit their squares and piazzas, you know the next one is near so you navigate your way through from square to square, exploring the spaces in between and finding out what they’re all about.”
The thing about the piazzas in Venice or Florence is that they’re all amazing places, and it doesn’t feel natural to talk about Piazza del Duomo when thinking in a Sheffield way. But then, thinking in a Sheffield way, what would you think about the Peace Gardens, Barker’s Pool, Devonshire Green; and what could be more Sheffield than them?
“The challenge for us is that it should be seamless in terms of the quality of the public realm, so that there isn’t a division,” says Nalin. “You’re not in the new retail quarter area, then all of a sudden you come out towards The Moor and feel a change. That’s not right. It’s our city centre, and we’ve got to make sure it works as a whole. So working closely with urban design colleagues to make sure that the landscaping and public realm is of exactly the same quality as the rest of what has been done in the city centre is really important.
“IT’S OUR CITY CENTRE, & WE’VE GOT TO MAKE SURE IT WORKS AS A WHOLE”
“There are elements of existing buildings that will be retained, and it builds on the existing street pattern and makes the best use of the topography across the site. It’s vital that this all looks and feels like Sheffield, so that it’s not like something that has landed from Mars but something that becomes part of the fabric of our city.
“I think the people of Sheffield have been waiting a long time for this to be finished off. Nobody is saying they don’t want something there, and would rather keep the blank space. From a visitor’s point of view, over sixteen years people might think that is what Sheffield is about; but the city is certainly not about having a load of derelict space in the middle of the city centre. I don’t think people want that blank space to be Sheffield. It’s not Sheffield.”
Westward Ho!, because southward ho are decorated hoardings around demolition rubble, and northward a wooden railing steers us away from Division Lane and the back of The Courtyard. At least, as we meander unsteadily between the parked cars on the Rockingham Street car park, we feel protected under the watchful gaze of students in Victoria Hall, who are pressing their noses to their windows and wondering what we’re playing at out there, wandering about in a half-derelict car park looking for food.
And heaven help us if we don’t make The Harley by nightfall. Sheffield city centre is a pleasant enough place by day, if you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. But by night, give us Abbeydale Road, give us Eccleshall Road; give us Kelham Island.
“It’s still got retail in the title, but it’s not all about retail,” says Nalin. “It’s about new restaurants, new bars, linked with the cultural offer that we have in the theatres and the galleries. It’s absolutely about people thinking, hang on a minute, I don’t have to go home. There are some new places to go to in the city centre.
“It’s not all about filling the space with shops. It’s about food and drink and restaurants and leisure, and introducing office space and residential space so that the vibrancy that was talked about sixteen years ago is delivered; so that it’s not just somewhere that shuts down at 5pm. What that might mean is a change of attitude towards the city centre.”
Which means stretching the days, and spending more time working out just what Sheffield city centre is really all about, because the city is allowing you more time to do it. The rush from desk to sandwich in the brief half-hour of freedom that breaks the daily grind inside the inner ring road is no way to get to know a city, even one you feel like you know already; it’s a quick hi- bye morning and night, without lingering to find out just how it’s getting on these days.
“When people talk today about what makes a successful retail experience, it means having the restaurants and bars that work alongside the theatres, art galleries and libraries,” says Nalin. “It means having the public realm and the space to dwell and relax and enjoy yourself. That’s exactly what any successful city centre is about.”
The exit onto Trafalgar Street is via a debris-strewn slope through a gap in the nettles, or whatever those plants are. Behind us the Grosvenor still looms, and seems to be no further away despite the distance we’ve travelled – or feel like we’ve travelled. We’ve come too far to still be able to see the amiable sight that made us hungry in the first place; but not far enough to be out of sight of the building that always makes us lose our appetite.
But we could still smell food. The Harley would be a cinch from here – nip down Eldon Street, across the Green, up onto Glossop Road – but temptation, thy name is Division Street, or more accurately, Devonshire Chippy. It’ll do. And you can’t see the Grosvenor from the door. And you might, as we did, meet a passing friend, wild-eyed and tattered and claiming to be making for The Moor. He said he’d come from Orchard Square, and we decided he had better share some of our chips.
The Retail Quarter does have retail in the title, though, and for different people retail does different things. “For certain things you might go to Meadowhall, for other things you might go to Leeds, you might go across to Manchester,” says Nalin. “Sheffield has its rich sources of independents like Division Street, Eccleshall Road and Abbeydale Road, that are unique and great to explore. But there’s a large part missing in the city centre, two minutes away from people’s offices, that other cities have. And we need to provide that choice and variety so people don’t have to travel elsewhere.
“IT’S ABOUT PEOPLE BEING ABLE TO MEET PEOPLE & EXPERIENCE PEOPLE”
“This is what will link all the aspects of the city’s retail together. We have Fargate, we have The Moor, we have Division Street. And in the middle of them all is this nothingness, this big empty site. So getting that connectivity right between Fargate, as it is now, and The Moor is really important. “That’s why we’ve done that design work about analysing what attracts people from A to B, and how they get there. It’s a typical thing where you see a green space created with a footpath around it, and people cut the corner. So how do we make sure we build the way people will behave into the scheme?
“One of the things we want to do as part of the design work is have a final check on pedestrian movements and people’s behaviour. How people get from A to B, and whether they will bother crossing to point C, or whether we can help to take them there, so we can get the maximum footfall through the area and make it sustainable.”
Those are the parts that will resonate with the great and the good to get development partners on the contract, buildings designed and cranes in the sky, but the most important parts to get right will be the bits between the buildings; not what’s in them, but what’s outside in the streets. “The city council has referred to this being the first of the new, with the old probably referring to those big malls that have popped up in other city centres. But is the first of the new really the new? We do live a cyclical existence, so what goes around comes around and we all still love not only Victorian street patterns but the street patterns that exist from medieval times.
“They’re public spaces where you want to spend some time and relax. Simply, at the end of the day, it’s about people being able to meet people and experience people, because it’s people that make it all work. So this is about creating quality places for people who want to come here, stay here, spend time here, shop here, work here, eat and drink here, live here.”
Us? We’re still hungry, and we reckon we can make it to The Harley now. There, we can fill a gap.
Originally published in The City Talking: Sheffield, issue 2