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Debenhams redevelopment scheme in Canterbury goes on public exhibition

By Gerry Warren

A £25 million redevelopment of a Debenham’s will “inspire a new wave of customers and residents” to come to the city, say business leaders.

Last week KentOnline exclusively revealed plans to transform the Canterbury department store's three buildings in the Buttermarket, Mercery Lane and Guildhall Street into 11 shops and food outlets and 76 flats.

Now, as new images of the plans are released, the proposals have been welcomed by leading figures in the city.

The vision for Debenhams in Guildhall Street, Canterbury (13865928)
The vision for Debenhams in Guildhall Street, Canterbury (13865928)

Lisa Carlson is chief executive of Canterbury Business Improvement District, which funds city centre improvements through a levy on traders.

She said of the planned development, which will be called the Guildhall Quarter: “It will transform the current retail offering and inspire a new wave of customers and residents to the city of Canterbury.

“It also reflects the changing landscape for retail across the UK, whereby businesses and organisations are using traditional retail space in an innovative and engaging way.

“We encourage all initiatives that will enhance our city culture and attract more footfall so we look forward to seeing the proposals for this site and supporting the business as the plans evolve.”

The scheme has also been welcomed by Canterbury Society chairman Jan Pahl, whose members are due to visit the exhibition today.

“It would be simply awful if this site was boarded up and abandoned and I think the principle of a mix of smaller retail units and residential is a good idea,” she said.

The proposed buildings in Guildhall Street (13897951)
The proposed buildings in Guildhall Street (13897951)

Plans for the site have been drawn up by city heritage architects Clague, which has been tasked by property investment management company 90North to tackle the challenging “repurposing” of the buildings for owners Chaucer Property Investments.

Clague last week revealed no single retailer showed an interest in taking on the huge site from the ailing Debenhams company, which is due to shut the shop in January.

Property experts believe a mixed development of retail and residential will make the scheme viable, with the ground floor and basement areas easier to let as separate, smaller units.

90North partner John Yeend said: “The three Debenhams sites offer one of the most significant city centre development opportunities in years.

The impressive new building which will front the High Street and Guildhall Street (13897967)
The impressive new building which will front the High Street and Guildhall Street (13897967)

“When they came to the market, we knew we could use our experience to transform this important, but under-utilised, retail space into a place that would be in keeping with Canterbury’s reputation for quality and that the city could be proud of.”

Clague believes the redevelopment will breathe new life into both sides of Guildhall Street and create a better link with Palace Street.

But partner Karl Elliott says about a third of the existing buildings, including the basements, are now unused by Debenhams and fallen into disrepair.

“We need to sort that first and protect the historic fabric of the building, parts of which date back to the 12th century,” he said.

Of potential controversy will be the extended height of the main building by two floors in places, but Mr Elliott says great care has been taken in the design to minimise the impact.

The footprint of the Debenhams site (13639490)
The footprint of the Debenhams site (13639490)

“Additional floors will be stepped back from the building line to reduce visibility and it is important to note that they will not be taller than those in Mercery Lane.

“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.

A planning application is expected to be submitted to the city council next month and, if approved, work could start in the spring of next year, with the first shop units opening the following year as part of a phased redevelopment.

Read more: All the latest news from Canterbury

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