Authors: Cyril Richert & David Curran
As we confirmed some time ago – Debenhams at Clapham Junction will never reopen. It’s a great shame to lose it, and our sympathy is with our many readers who used to work there. But it raises a very immediate question of what happens next with our local landmark.
The owner of the building is W.RE (W. Real Estate limited). They bought the building a few years ago, expecting that Debenhams would probably depart at some stage. Everything accelerated as Debenhams started to run into financial difficulties last year and asked for rent cuts so they could afford to keep trading. W.RE refused and Debenhams confirmed to us in an email in October 2019 that “the store will remain trading until – at least – 23 June 2020“, although no exit date was set yet. Unfortunately came the Covid19 crisis and the department stores decided comprehensively not to reopen for even a few months (see our previous article for more details).
In the meantime it appears that the new owner was carrying extensive research on future developments, working with architects and consultants on multiple options. As W.RE develop plans for the building’s future they have run a series of public webinars, where they have been commendably frank about their plans for the building. They have also been happy to have detailed discussions with CJAG.
This is a very important moment for Clapham Junction – it’s our landmark building, and as the largest unit apart from Asda it’s also a flagship part of the trade of the town centre – even in Debenhams’ most troubled stage, having a major store that sold a lot of things here was important in attracting shoppers to the town centre as a whole, and a lot of the smaller and independent businesses nearby benefitted from this.T K Maxx and Boots are understandably popular, but every local town centre has one – but only Clapham Junction had a department store!
If W.RE get this right, Clapham Junction will benefit… but get it wrong and the problems will be widely felt for many years! Which is why we’ve been reassured by the frank and open way the developers have engaged so far. They are clearly very conscious of the importance of the building they have bought, and we welcome their commitment to take an approach that makes the most of its potential. In the rest of this article we explore the emerging proposals in some detail, picking out some aspects we know have been especially welcomed, as well as areas where we have concerns.
Most of the building will change from retail, to office space
Initial rumours suggested hotel use for the upper levels, and W.RE confirmed this was explored. Indeed the few mid-range hotels we do have in the area do very well (especially the Premier Inn along Lavender Hill, always full and currently being extended due to high demand). However, the very deep floors mean that the hotel would either have rooms without windows (not ideal – maybe OK in super-central spots), or a fundamentally inefficient hotel layout. They also recognised that a lot of the character of the building, such as the elegant proportions, the high ceilings, and the still-visible roof decoration, would be lost if it was split up into many small rooms.
The final option is for an office to take most of the upper levels of the building, with retail only on the ground floor, and the basement. T.K. Maxx, with a long lease, will carry on as they do now. The current escalator access is likely to be some the way in to the offices, but with replacement escalators and a lightwell above.
An office might at first seem a surprising choice – until you think about the strong demand in recent years for offices in the area. Battersea Power Station includes a huge 500,000 square foot office let to Apple, and its developers have recently applied to build more large offices instead of flats, because of the unexpectedly high demand for office space. Nine Elms has recently become home to publishing firms including Penguin Books and Dorling Kindersley. The Battersea Studios offices on Silverthorne Road are busy, and even Brixton has also seen several prominent new office developments (such as architects Squire and Partners – who took over another former Department store and beautifully renovated it to become their new HQ).
And we can see the logic in this: it’s clear that large Department stores are struggling, and an office will still attract people to the town centre. It is a use that should attract people, and it’s more in keeping with the department store design than splitting it up would be. And Clapham Junction is an extremely accessible location for millions of people. Once the Coronavirus and lockdowns are but a distant memory, this will be a very desirable place to work.
Our main concern: the removal of retail on the first floor
However we are concerned about the sheer scale of the proposed reduction in retail floorspace – from five full floors, to just part of the ground and basement. This would be a very drastic reduction – and we’re never likely to be able to recreate units as large as this elsewhere in the town centre.
The first floor was always designed for use as a retail space, with its large display windows, and we are aware of a still pretty healthy demand for shops with an upstairs area, not to mention a few restaurant users who’d be takers for the space if it had separate access from the Lavender Hill corner.
We support the conversion of the building to a mainly office use. But we strongly believe the first floor facing Lavender Hill and the junction should remain in retail use – so that the town centre can retain space for the significant shops that attract trade from further afield, including those that prefer larger spaces than can be gained on ground and basement alone, and so that the building can keep the first two floors with their distinctive large display windows in line with their intended use.
This is quite easily achievable without compromising on the office layout: T.K. Maxx uses an upper floor very successfully, with some stock and staff rooms in the basement, the building has the flexibility for internal stairs and lifts (both already exist in that section, albeit more modern versions would be needed), and the half-floor level that was ‘Joe and the Juice’ can easily be adapted to give access to the upper level as well as to the ground floor.
A bold rooftop extension, more prominent than expected
W.RE are proposing to add two floors to the roof of the existing building. They’ve spent some time on the design for this – trying out various shapes as well as various designs. Their thinking is that a ‘plain, generic’ rooftop extension won’t work on what’s a fairly complex and ornate building, and we’re inclined to agree.
The proposed roof extension proposals are quite bold: current plans envisage a two storey structure covering much of the roof surface, with curves echoing some of those on the building below. Inside would be a mostly open plan space with a mezzanine level, and a timber framed roof. A more routine structure at the Northcote Road end (over the old kitchen department and cafe) would be built over the current domed roof and skylights, and provide space for some of the building’s utilities and services.
In their studies, they claim to try to minimise the impact on the cupola, echo the beautiful windows on the first floor to design the additional elements and align with the existing columns. The image below shows curve studies used in developing the proposed design.
The proposed design (which, we should stress, is not final at this stage) also sees a roof terrace at the Lavender Hill end of the building, as visible in the massing model below. Overall – this is not a design trying to be a pastiche of the building below, or just a glass box – bit rather it’s definitely making a statement of its own.
The current rooftop buildings are a mess and add no value, though with one notable exception (a rather unattractive plant room pictured to the right) they do have the benefit of not being very visible from street level.
By and large, we feel this is heading along the right lines – the devil will be in the detail. This is a bold proposal, and maybe a more prominent development than we suspected we would see – but it could work. Whatever is built needs to be sensitive to the appearance of the building, and will also need to be of the very highest quality of design and materials. The detailed proportions will be important – to make sure that the proportions of the listed building still ‘work’ from the junction. Building projects can often go through planning looking great, and then have a series of amendments designed to ‘value engineer’ them, by trimming costs here and there, and end up not looking that good at all. This obviously isn’t something that will be acceptable on this listed landmark.
The clock tower will remain a key local landmark
W.RE do recognise the importance of the cupola (clocktower) – not just as a feature and symbol of the junction, but as an important long distance view along Lavender Hill and Falcon Road (see below for an example). They have worked to make sure that view is not blocked. Part of the reason for the roof terrace at the Lavender Hill end of the building is to make sure the cupola remains visible from the east and along Lavender Hill, and to reduce its prominence from the main junction.
The cupola itself may see a variety of uses. The plans are for a roof terrace at that end of the building – and the cupola, which is accessed from the terrace, could potentially become a bar or meeting room serving the office development. The photo to the right is one we’re including from W.RE’s presentation for your curiosity: the view of the back of the Arding & Hobbs clock! As you can see the interior of the tower hasn’t seen much love in recent years, but it’s an interesting space with potential. It is also possible to see clues of the glory of the building in The Human League’s ‘Life On Your Own’ video (from 2’08): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLe8HEqdpLc
The pavement canopy will be removed
Not everyone realises that the canopy is not original (the above photo shows it in the 1950s, before the canopy was added as a modernisation’ at some stage in the 60s or 70s). W.RE plan to simply remove it, and restore some more traditional roll-down shop awnings as the building would have had when it was built. We think this is a sensible move as it allows taller shop-fronts more in line with the original design of the building, and also means that the building is more visible from the pavement alongside it. Works will also include restoring the original structural columns all the way down (as they are currently hidden behind panels at street level).
The windows and stonework will be restored right around the building (including TK Maxx’s section), and the Ilminster Gardens side in particular can expect a proper tidying up, with some elements such as the heritage windows being reinstated. There will potentially be some planting on that side in the lightwells and the loading bay area, to make it more attractive.
Sadly, we may not see the stained glass skylight again
Debenhams Cafe was a variable thing – but it did benefit from the rather attractive stained glass skylight.
W.RE do not envisage a public rooftop restaurant nor bar, or continued access to this part of the building – ostensibly due to difficulties with fire safety regulation they claim (though Debenhams did manage a café area on the top floor), though it’s clear the main driver for this is the difficulty of integrating such operations with the office use on the upper levels.
The celebrated stained glass roof is, of course, in a rather inaccessible part of the building and under the proposals, this is set to become part of the office space – which means it’ll only be visible if you hire an office in the upstairs level.
At the moment, the future occupiers are not finalised
The building has been entirely dedicated to retail for the last 150 years, but the developers wish to create an “aspiration” for the present time with a mix of use and the retail part made restaurants, cafes, food orientated business and elements of wellbeing with a gym for example on the ground floor and basement.
We understand W.RE have spoken to various potential retail, leisure and office occupiers to gauge interest, though precise details are some way down the line. There’s a desire to have retail that is upmarket and that shows the building in a good light, maybe with several uses mixed in the premises rather than a straight split to two units. The possibility of affordable workspace is currently under discussion with the council.
What happens next?
This project hasn’t gone in to the planning process yet – though W.RE are keen to keep moving now that they have half a million square feet of empty building on their hands. We were told that the construction site should take 15 to 18 months, depending on the Council’s decision to grant permission. It could be achieved by the end of 2022 at the earliest.
Planning won’t be quick: the loss of all this retail space is sensitive and we suspect that there will need to be some rowing back on just how much is lost. W.RE know that the roof extension is a delicate issue on a listed landmark, and that they can expect lot of local interest!
W. Real Estates envisages hanging on to this building for the long term, rather than selling it on when it is leased.
CJAG is welcoming the project with some key concerns
We appreciate that W.RE have played this straight and not tried to minimise the impact created through chosen views or wide angle cameras. We’ve seen too many cases where the towers fade out miraculously to the colour of the sky, or where only the views that show no changes are presented; W.RE have not done this at all and have shared the most direct takes on the project, which is to their credit.
W.RE report that local comments that they received are pretty positive, though it’s important to remember that people are used to disappointment (a lot of them are still remembering the 42-storey twin towers previously planned for Clapham Junction station, or now the Winstanley and York series of very tall towers that the Council is trying to impose) and they were expecting a lot worse, including maybe a new tower on top of the iconic building! Therefore, the fact that the proposal is currently seen as an immediate relief shouldn’t prevent proposing amendments to improve the scheme. As W.RE recognise – “the design is not finished yet“.
Our key concerns explained in detail above are:
- We strongly believe the first floor facing Lavender Hill and the junction should remain in retail use – so that the building can keep the first two floors with their distinctive large display windows in line with their intended use.
- The roof extension is a bold proposal and a more visible development than expected to be acceptable on this listed landmark. It needs to be sensitive to the appearance of the building, and will also need to be of the very highest quality of design and materials.
It’s obvious that the studies for this project have been underway for some time, and not hastily assembled in the first two weeks of summer after the “consultation” of the local residents (as PR agency Cascadem claims). Therefore, when they write “after our extensive engagement“, a cynic could interpret this as “after the mandatory engagement survey been done, we were able to go public with the work we have been working on for many months for the redevelopment of this building“…
That said – it is undeniable that a lot of effort and thought has gone in by a committed and enthusiastic team during months to bring now all the material available in this proposal, and the proposals are thoughtful and could, with some tweaks, work well.
Will W.RE be open to amendments? Or is it already a deal that they will keep discussing only with Wandsworth planners, ignoring local residents (as some developers admitted doing in the past)?
As Sasha Lewin of W.RE has commented, “There is probably a solution to every problem if it becomes the main focus“. We hope that they will amend the proposal to make this exciting project a success, not only for them but also for the local area which will benefit from a great redevelopment.
We have already received a lot of interest from our membership and we welcome your thoughts on the proposal in the comment section (below) of this article. Please get in touch!