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Developers unveil plans for overhaul of The Grafton area in Cambridge

A vision for the future of The Grafton has emerged from developers, who want to demolish part of the Cambridge shopping centre and other properties as part of a radical overhaul of the site.

East Road view of the redeveloped The Grafton centre (63245872)
East Road view of the redeveloped The Grafton centre (63245872)

The Pioneer Group says it will deliver a new research hub for the life science sector, new retail, food and beverage units, as well as a new Premier Inn hotel.

It has begun a consultation on introducing a Premier Inn hotel to the site off East Road, and says there will be space for three restaurants around a new public square, with outdoor restaurant seating and new plants and trees. The cinema and gym would be retained.

A ‘screening report’ prepared for Cambridge City Council ahead of a planning application reveals more details about the proposals, which include demolishing part of the shopping centre, including the former Debenhams.

The demolition of 11-12 Burleigh Street –currently occupied by The Catch fish shop – and Abbeygate House, home to the British Heart Foundation shop, is also proposed.

Subjit Jassy, from Pioneer Group, which now owns the site, said: “It is obvious to everyone that The Grafton centre has a growing number of empty retail units. People also recognise we need to give the building and area a new ambition.

The Square proposal for The Grafton centre redevelopement (63245866)
The Square proposal for The Grafton centre redevelopement (63245866)

“Our proposals focus on regenerating the centre and the immediate area, creating new public spaces as well as a repurposed building converted into laboratory space for the city’s science businesses, including start-ups, whilst providing the convenient and affordable shops that people value at The Grafton in a more attractive setting.

“A hotel already has planning permission here, but by incorporating it into our wider aspirations, we can create a pleasant public square by East Road with restaurants to create a destination centred around the cinema. We are inviting the public to comment by visiting our consultation website.”

The purpose of the screening report is to consider the need for an environmental impact assessment for the redevelopment, which covers an area of more than four hectares – or around six football pitches.

It sets out plans for the removal and replacement of façades and shopfronts, proposes new terraces at fourth floor level and the redevelopment of the bus turning and redundant service areas.

The Vue at the Grafton would be retained under the plans. Picture: Keith Heppell
The Vue at the Grafton would be retained under the plans. Picture: Keith Heppell

The report states: “The proposals include the redevelopment of the existing bus turning head area on East Road. This includes extensive works to the alignment of East Road, including improvements for on-carriageway bus stops to replace those in the existing bus turning head, and the reallocation of public highway space to enhance the pedestrian and cycle environment of East Road. These measures will enhance pedestrian amenity and improve access to public transport facilities.”

Planning permission has previously been granted for a new building of up to six storeys to replace the three-storey Abbeygate House block.

City councillors unanimously agreed to the plans, which would maintain retail space on the ground floor, with office space on upper floors.

The plans stated that there would be no car parking, other than disabled parking spaces, with 194 cycle parking spaces planned for office workers and shop staff.

Concerns had been raised by people living opposite the site about the impact the redevelopment will have on noise and traffic, as well as overshadowing their homes.

But the new owner of The Grafton has yet to confirm whether or not these plans will change now the building is part of the wider scheme.

Abbeygate House is in line for redevelopment. Picture: Keith Heppell
Abbeygate House is in line for redevelopment. Picture: Keith Heppell

Converting the shopping centre into a research hub will provide thousands of jobs from apprentice to PhD level, according to the developers.

But when the plans were first shown to the public last year, there was concern about the impact for local residents of the reduction in retail space.

The developers envisage consolidating the remaining shops at the Fitzroy Street end of the centre around the new outdoor public square, while turning the east part of the building into laboratory space for science start-ups and researchers.

But the consultation website, which notes people “typically travel 5.5 miles to get here”, promises: “Retail will remain a significant activity in the centre, complementing and supporting the shops on Fitzroy and Burleigh Street.”

The release of the artist’s impressions for the site did not impress community historian Antony Carpen.

He said: “How many times do developers need to be told we are sick to death of spreadsheet architecture? I don’t like the identikit ‘spreadsheet architecture’ that we’re already seeing far too much of. At this rate the authors of Hideous Cambridge will need to write a second edition!”

Planning permission for a Premier Inn hotel on the site was previously granted by Cambridge City Council in 2020, but this has not been built.

Pioneer Group is the life science and technology arm of Trinity Investment Management, which acquired the site in August 2022 from Legal & General.

You can comment on the consultation online at graftoncentreconsultation.co.uk.

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