The Debenhams shop in Gloucester is to be transformed into lecture halls and training spaces for nurses and healthcare workers in the latest reinvention of a department store building as consumers switch to online shopping.
The store has been closed since December under the government’s high-street lockdown and will not reopen. The online retailer Boohoo bought the Debenhams brand but not its high-street outlets.
The University of Gloucestershire has purchased the site, which has been home to a department store for more than 100 years, with plans to retain the original fascia and refurbish its 20,000 sq metres over five floors. Its hoped that students will begin studying there by September 2023.
Part of the ground floor will be allocated as local community cultural and enterprise space. The site once had a Bon Marché department store but that was mostly rebuilt in the 1930s.
Towns and cities in the UK are having to consider new uses for buildings at the heart of their communities as the number of department stores shrinks rapidly.
More than 120 Debenhams stores are set to close permanently this year, following the loss of more than 20 Beales outlets in 2020. The House of Fraser, John Lewis, and Marks & Spencer are also moving out of some premises.
Other sites are being transformed into hotels, offices, flats, indoor markets, bowling alleys and for other leisure uses.
The coronavirus crisis has accelerated the declining demand for retail space as shoppers have bought more online and spent more on activities or digital services rather than physical goods.
Marks & Spencer announced plans last week to rebuild its flagship store in Oxford Street, London, to incorporate several floors of offices, just weeks after John Lewis revealed it was applying for planning permission to convert up to half its nearby store to offices.
Stephen Marston, the university’s vice-chancellor, said: “The Debenhams building has a special place in the hearts of local people, and we’re delighted that our plans will help breathe new life and purpose into a place that is central to the city’s heritage.
“It is part of the University’s mission to support the growth and development of our community, economically, socially and culturally. By repurposing this iconic building into a new hub for learning, we can make a major contribution to creating a better future for our community.”
Richard Cook, the leader of Gloucester city council, said the deal formed part of its plans to regenerate the city centre alongside refurbishment of the train station and work to turn Kings Square into an events space.
“This is fantastic news which not only guarantees the future of this much loved building but also sees it become a hive of activity and learning,” he said.