JLL Exeter: The Opportunities Of City Neighbourhoods

JLL Exeter: The Opportunities Of City Neighbourhoods

Written By Kate Williams

Photos supplied by JLL Exeter and Sofy Robertson

The retail world is changing and there is no getting away from it. With the most recent casualty being high street giant, Debenhams, experts are putting this decline of town and city centre shops down to online shopping but real estate and investment visionaries at JLL Exeter say, don’t panic and that this is an opportunity – not a threat.

Recent reports of the downward spiral concerning retail outlets over the past few years are telling us shop closures are at an all-time high but big league global property ace, JLL Exeter is adamant that it’s all about how you look at it.

The decline of the high street is an opportunity for Devon’s city centres to reinvent themselves to meet wider pressing needs, says the consultancy firm.

City centres in Devon, including Exeter and Plymouth, are set for transformation as housing, offices and leisure facilities replace empty retail space, but this wave of change should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat, says JLL Exeter.

City and town centres need to be refashioned into ‘city neighbourhoods’ and ‘community hubs’, a mix of places to live, work and play with a combination of housing, leisure and offices which will create more vibrant centres that help to meet the needs of the wider city, according to experts at the consultancy.

Andrew Hector is the Director-Professional Advisory at JLL Exeter, based at The Senate in Exeter’s Southernhay, and is a man with a plan for the future of Exeter.

“This is an opportunity to reinvent Exeter city centre. Exeter is actually quite a successful city centre – it’s had its challenges but it is nowhere near as extreme as places like Torquay and Plymouth, where there is a massive over-capacity of retail space and it is really undermining the function of these places. They have got their strategies to address that.”

Andrew Hector of JLL Exeter

Andrew, previously a surveyor for Plymouth City Council before he moved to work for JLL Exeter, explains there is a need to create something different in the retail spaces and some other areas.

“It might be a gym, hotels, bars and restaurants, but residential is the main opportunity – and to some extent, work spaces.”

He continued,

“There is a need for more office space in Exeter but not an enormous amount, partly because the depth of demand is not sufficient to stimulate development without intervention of some kind. Although Exeter is doing well in the business sector, we need more contemporary office spaces.”

Andrew said,

“So, we’ve come up with a scheme for the bus station which is targeting workplace accommodation and homes. It’s all about repurposing town centres to reduce reliance on the traditionally dominant retail role. The retail space itself is becoming more experiential, with retailers increasingly relying on online sales.

“This is about creating an environment where people can touch and feel and experience, we are trying to create a destination where people can live and work and play – and they can do that on this site. It’s a real micro-example of what is happening over the whole of the UK. There is less activity and vibrancy in the town and city centres.”

He continued,

“A lot of the retail closures are affecting South West towns so what do you do with those spaces? Well, actually, they are opportunities as well, to introduce other uses such as gyms and hotels and housing – and get people living in the city centres again so that they stop being places where activity happens at six o’clock and everyone gets in their car and drives out of town. We want them to be living, thriving, 24/7 work, live, play environments.”

In Exeter, the historic eastern gateway into the city centre is set to be transformed with the creation of a mixed-use urban quarter, which comes after the Crown Estate pulled out of plans to extend the Princesshay shopping centre in 2017.

A £300 million transformation plan for the Exeter Bus Station site is what Andrew has been working on with 500 homes, two hotels, offices and a new civic centre planned for the major development at the bus station, Sidwell Street and Bampfylde Street.

Aerial view of city centre with bus and coach station area earmarked for redevelopment JLL Exeter
Aerial view of city centre with bus and coach station area earmarked for redevelopment and nearby civic centre highlighted in red

Anchored by a new civic hub, it will be almost twice the size of Princesshay, but with homes and offices as well as shops, leisure and cultural attractions including a state-of-the-art Passivhaus leisure centre.  The £300 million scheme will be led and delivered in partnership with the council.

Andrew says:

“The bus station is a flagship project for the city. We are looking at a high-density scheme with some very good quality hotel interest in the development concept which has not been approved as yet. We are trying to assemble the site by working with other land owners, the key one being the Crown Estate, who own the Princesshay shopping centre, so they have a vested interest in that being next door, wanting it to enhance and support the shopping centre.”

He continued,

“We are working with them to put forward a development with hotels, homes, offices and a new civic centre. There could be a cultural element to it depending on it is the right location for a performance venue for Exeter.”

According to JLL Exeter, the site is hugely significant in place-making terms as it will bring long-term social and economic benefits at a time when the dominant retail function of city centres is being challenged and reimagined.

The firm also says that there has been a shift of focus in the planning system putting schemes such as the bus station development in Exeter, which protect and strengthen the existing retail offer and re-establish city centres as integrated, vibrant mixed-use communities, before out-of-town developments like Moor Exchange on the eastern outskirts of the city, which was thrown out by planners last year.

Councils are taking the lead and it is no surprise that, over the last five years, 40 percent of the money invested by councils has been in the retail and leisure sector, allowing them to take control of these areas and drive much-needed change, according to the property experts.

So, if there are less high street shops, what will bring people into the centres?

“Every location is going to be different,” says Andrew. “It’s probably an easy answer to Exeter because it has an identity, its history is an important part of it, the cathedral, it has kept some of its architecture”.

He said,

“Somewhere like Plymouth, which was heavily blitzed and redeveloped in the 1950s and 1960s, is a bit more difficult. The identity of Plymouth is more implicit in the Hoe and its waterfront, rather than the city centre. So, we are already on to a good start in Exeter, it’s got a clear identity and it’s how you embrace that and add to it in terms of the cultural offer.”

Andrew continued,

“The city space does not just have to be shops, it can have other uses which are going to generate footfall like cafes, bars, some health and leisure uses, build-to-rent property, retirement accommodation.”

Princesshay Exeter with shoppers walking.

Andrew’s vision for the future of Exeter city centre, at a time when department stores and major high street retailers are going bust, is to reassess and rejuvenate without losing what is at the heart of the city.

“Princesshay is buoyant and well managed with a full events list. Should the city centre actually contract and is that one of the solutions to plan for? To concentrate the experience into a smaller area?”.

Andrew said,

“We will definitely have a high street. I think we’ll see sites on the edge of the core city centre being developed for offices, but more homes and leisure facilities.  The car park provision could be rationalised releasing a certain amount of space for these and other uses. There is strong demand for different standards of hotel provision in Exeter for business clients as Exeter is thriving on a business front and for city breaks too.

“The High street and Princesshay are the absolute core of the city and some of the other locations like Gandy Street and Longbrook Street are becoming very nice places to be and are thriving as a focus for artisan and independent traders. Depending on what happens with House of Fraser – there is a huge opportunity there.”

So, there is a bright light shining at the end of the retail doom and gloom tunnel, according to Andrew – compacting the city centre’s retail area into a smaller space with high-end shops for a more user-friendly city, using some of the larger retail spaces for homes and office space, with a number of areas just outside the centre becoming community hubs with a selection of leisure and lifestyle complexes. Andrew continues:

“The fact that online sales have rocketed is one of the reasons why retailers are now struggling and has to be looked at – like Debenhams – maybe reimagine the floorspace.”

“We need to protect and support the high street and create an environment around it that is going to generate more business and help rejuvenate it where it needs it. A re-balance between retail and non-retail floorspace, that is the future.”

To find out more about JLL Exeter, click here.

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