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Major redevelopment of The Grafton shopping centre in Cambridge recommended for approval

Plans to redevelop The Grafton in Cambridge to create laboratory and office spaces alongside shops, restaurants and a hotel are recommended for approval.

The recommendation comes despite objections over the impact of the proposed building heights on the city’s historic skyline, particularly the view from Castle Mound.

CGI image of the regenerated shopping areas Picture: Pioneer Group Ltd
CGI image of the regenerated shopping areas Picture: Pioneer Group Ltd

Developer Pioneer Group Ltd hopes to convert the bulk of the centre into laboratory and office space for start-ups, small businesses, and established companies in the science and technology industry.

Its plans also include renovating the western end of the centre, with the roof removed to create a new public square surrounded by shops and cafes.

Meanwhile, the current gym and cinema would remain and be joined by a new hotel and restaurants to create a “leisure destination” on East Road.

The plans were submitted to Cambridge City Council in July 2023, and are due to be considered by councillors on Wednesday (7 February).

In recommending the plans for approval, officers wrote: “Overall, the application facilitates the on-going viable use of the Grafton Centre which is declining as a retail destination. Unlike many other dated shopping centres nationally, being located within Cambridge, the site is uniquely placed to help meet the high demand of lab and life sciences uses that are currently coming forward in Cambridge.”

But officers admit the plans will harm the Central Conservation Area, the Grade I listed Jesus College chapel and the overall character and appearance of the area, but not substantially.

The council’s conservation, landscape and urban design teams along with Historic England have all lodged objections to the scheme over the impact of the proposed new buildings.

The Friends of St Matthew’s Piece and charity Cambridge, Past, Present and Future have also raised concerns.

The Friends’ objections include impact on nearby conservation areas and the “excessive scale and massing” of the development, with Cambridge PPF stating the plans will “significantly diminish the distinctive skyline of Cambridge”.

The council also received 54 comments from members of the public, with the majority raising objections to the proposals.

In conclusion, officers wrote: “The proposal would bring about strong benefits economically, socially and environmentally to The Grafton centre and more generally to this part of town. In light of the changing retail sector and increasing retail vacancy rates in The Grafton centre, a scheme which seeks to repurpose a large proportion of it to an alternative and viable employment use should be strongly supported.

CGI image of the regenerated shopping areas Picture: Pioneer Group Ltd
CGI image of the regenerated shopping areas Picture: Pioneer Group Ltd

“Cambridge is fortunate that its economy provides demand for repurposing such a site and this is thus an opportunity in planning terms which officers recommend strongly for support.”

Subjit Jassy, director at Pioneer Group Ltd, which owns and manages science centres in 11 towns and cities in the UK, welcomed the officers’ recommendation.

He said: “The new laboratory space would provide more than 2,000 jobs, from entry level to PhD. By providing spaces suitable for international companies and small start-ups in one building in the city centre, scientists here will be able to collaborate with each other, mentors from Pioneer, researchers in the city’s amazing universities, and investors to help them develop lifesaving new technologies.

“Cambridge is at the heart of the UK’s research industry, but new lab space is in short supply and desperately needed. By providing this space in the city centre we will also deliver new jobs near where people live, encouraging more sustainable travel as well as helping local shops, cafes and restaurants to thrive.”

​John O’Shea, the manager of The Grafton, added: “I have worked in retail for many years, and over that time I’ve seen drastic changes to how people shop.

“The Grafton has lost big anchor stores to national closure programmes, we have a lot of empty units, and footfall has reduced dramatically. People will always want local, convenient retail here at The Grafton, but also want a nicer shopping experience with greener streets, places to sit down, and places to meet family and friends.

“I hope that councillors approve this application, because it will strengthen retail at The Grafton for the long term. “The Business Improvement District has also written in support of the plans, recognising that The Grafton needs to change to survive.”

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