Debenhams stores reinvented: From ‘fun factories’ to student digs

Despite 90% of Debenhams stores remaining empty, some shops have been given a new lease of life under very different guises. Retail Gazette highlights some of the notable revamps.

Debenhams
Many Debenhams stores have been given a new lease of life

Debenhams closed its doors for the final time last May and almost a year later nine out of ten of the former department stores remain vacant, according to data from the Local Data Company.

However, some Debenhams stores have been given a new lease of life and, in many cases, have emerged under a very different guise. Retail Gazette highlights some of most notable revamps.

Fun factories

The leisure sector has snapped up several former Debenhams stores with the large sites making a perfect venue for activities such as bowling, go-karting and mini-golf.

In London’s Wandsworth, the Gravity entertainment centre has emerged from the ashes of Debenhams. The complex includes eight immersive experiences including go-karting, mini-golf, AR darts and bowling. 

Gravity Wandsworth in the former Debenhams store
Gravity Wandsworth has a raft of immersive experiences

The former store also has a bar where robots serve drinks to punters, an e-Sports gaming arena, a games arcade and Japanese noodle bar.

The leisure complex is certainly proving popular. According to The Sunday Times, it is attracting 15% more visitors than Debenhams did.

Wandsworth is not the only Debenhams store that is turning into a leisure attraction.

Part of the Debenhams at Coventry’s West Orchards Shopping Centre will be transformed into a 12-lane bowling alley and adventure golf, while permission has been granted to turn the Liverpool One Debenhams store into an indoor go-kart track, although the lower two floors of the building will remain dedicated to retail.

In Hastings, developers Graham and Debbie Owen, who launched the Phileas Fogg’s World of Adventures attraction in Brighton, have submitted plans to turn three floors of the ex-Debenhams store into a “family fun factory”, which will include ten-pin bowling, soft play, crazy golf and a themed restaurant “plus over 20 other unique and exciting attractions for all ages, including some never seen before in the UK”.

University campus and student digs

The education sector has also pounced on some ex-Debenhams stores.

Gloucestershire University has snapped up the five-storey former store in Kings Square, Gloucester for £3 million and will spend £60 million transforming it into a campus that will include teaching spaces, a university library, student help zones and a faith space.

The lower ground floor will be converted into a large lecture theatre. 

Gloucestershire University
Credit: University of Gloucestershire/ADP Architecture

Planning permission was granted for the scheme last month and it won praise from local councillors.

Councillor Usman Bhaimia said it was a “credit to the university and would “help attract more people to the city”.

“It’s right in the middle of the city centre from where people can access transport such as the buses and trains. And at the same time it’s close to shops for students and they can go out at night-time,” he said.

The campus is expected to open from September 2023.

Gloucester is not the only store that will be used by the education sector. The former Debenhams on Briggate in Leeds city centre will be turned into student apartments.

Developer Orchard Street has received planning approval to transform the store into a student-led mixed-use development, which will include 124 studio apartments designed to meet the demand from the city’s high student population.

Leeds has five city centre universities, and more than 38,000 university students are currently unable to access purpose-built student accommodation

The scheme is due to complete in the second half of 2023.

Homes

It is not just students that will live in ex-Debenhams stores. Several of the former Debenhams stores are being converted into homes.

In Southampton, the former store on Queensway is set to be demolished to make way for 600 homes.

The developer, National Regional Property Group, said it was “not viable” to retain the existing building for retail use but managing director Allan Gordon told the BBC the new building would “help to rejuvenate a key part of the city”.

In nearby Southsea, a block of 134 apartments will be built on its former Debenhams store whilst in Chatham, Kent, the local council is planning to buy the high street store and convert it into 76 flats.

It’s a similar story in towns including Worthing, Staines and Guildford where developers are planning mixed use schemes that merge residential and retail in a glimpse of what the future of the high street could look like.

Community space

It is not just developers that are snapping up former Debenhams stores, community groups have also taken them over to create hubs for local people.

In Carmarthen, Wales, the ex-Debenahms store is set to be transformed into a hub for health, wellbeing, learning and cultural services.

It will also house some museum collections, an exhibition space, and become a welcome point for visitors to the town.

Carmarthenshire Council is working with Hywel Dda University Health Board and University of Wales Trinity Saint David on the plans. The team has secured £15 million in funding from the government’s Levelling Up fund with a further £3.5 million invested by Carmarthenshire Council.

The team is in talks to secure the building, which it hopes to open in spring 2024.

Meanwhile, in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, the ex-Debenhams store is being used by artists as a place to work and exhibit. The Primeyarc gallery has been developed by Original Projects, an arts-based charity supported by The Arts Council.

Wee Hub, Leith
The Wee Hub has opened in Leith’s former Debenhams store

In Leith in Edinburgh, the Debenhams store has been turned into ‘The Wee Hub’, a space run by The Living Memory Association that a variety of arts, drama and sports organisations can use.

The Living Memory Association has created special areas for dance and theatre, children’s play, crafts, a library and a ‘wee sit and knit’ in order to bring various generations together.

However, the hub is just a temporary project while the store owner seeks planning permission to demolish the building to make way for a £100 million development which will see the shopping centre transformed into a hotel and homes.

Hotels

Speaking of hotels, the Debenhams in the centre of Edinburgh is set to become a boutique hotel.

The City of Edinburgh Council have granted permission for the £50 million development, which will create a new 207 bedroom luxury hotel at the Princes Street location with a rooftop sky bar, restaurants, a gym and a meeting venue.

Construction work is expected to begin in 2022 with the hotel scheduled to open in 2024.

New department stores

While many Debenhams stores have undergone dramatic changes of use, some have remained department stores.

In Bournemouth, the former Debenhams store has been restored to Bobby’s, the department store that originally traded in that site in 1915.

Bobby's
Department store Bobby’s returned to its original site in the former Debenhams store in Bournemouth

The building was acquired by Debenhams in 1972 but developers Verve Properties have brought Bobby’s back.

The store has opened in phases with the first phase, which included the beauty hall, a poke bowl bar, a traditional ice cream and coffee parlour, an art gallery and a food hall specifically for dogs, making its debut last September.

This was followed by a Market Hall, a space for members of the South Coast Makers Market, to showcase their wares.

Further elements of Bobby’s offer will be unveiled later this year.

In Harrow, independent department store The Landmark opened in Debenhams’ building last October. Overseen by former Allders Croydon boss Adolfo de Advarado, The Landmark sells womenswear, menswear, childrenswear and beauty across two floors.

Meanwhile, national chains have pounced on some of Debenhams’ best locations. Next has opened its Home and Beauty format in former Debenhams stores in locations such as Milton Keynes, Watford,  Reading, Croydon, and Gateshead’s Metro Centre.

Meanwhile, M&S has taken on the ex-Debenhams stores at Birmingham’s Bullring, the White Rose centre in Leeds, Stevenage, Llandudno and the Ravenside retail park in Chesterfield.

Discounters

In a sign of the times, some ex-Debenhams stores have been bought by the discounters.

The Range founder Chris Dawson has revealed his ambition to fill the stores left empty by businesses like John Lewis, Debenhams and M&S and has snapped up three ex-Debenhams stores including in Bury.

The Range is on a mission to fill stores left empty by John Lewis and Debenhams
The Range is on a mission to fill stores left empty by John Lewis and Debenhams

He told The Sunday Times that he sees the potential to take over 15 former Debenhams stores.

Meanwhile, Lidl has taken over Debenhams’ Borehamwood store.

Debenhams stores are taking on new leases of life in very different ways. Hopefully there is more reinvention afoot in the year ahead to fill some of the big holes Debenhams has left in high streets and shopping centres across the UK.

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