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Future of The Grafton centre in Cambridge up for debate

Debate has begun over the future of The Grafton shopping centre in Cambridge after it was put up for sale, with growing calls for community input into shaping a key city centre location.

Savills, which is selling the site on behalf of owner Legal & General, described it as “a major opportunity for redevelopment and repurposing across 12 acres in the heart of Cambridge”.

While the addition of new office space and leisure uses at The Grafton have previously been mooted, Savills’ sales documents suggested scope for 80,000 square feet of “life sciences and laboratory accommodation” across the 500,000 sq ft site.

The Grafton Centre.
The Grafton Centre.

Businesses have been left unsure what this will mean for their future.

Alex Signorelli, who has three Italian food outlets in The Grafton centre, said independent stores first found out via social media after the Cambridge Independent broke the news online last week.

He said: “All I know at the moment is they are looking to sell it. I haven’t got a clue why and I don't know what it means for me. We had a briefing from The Grafton management the day after the news broke, but it was just a 20-minute conversation.

“Everyone found out about the sale on social media. You can imagine we didn’t feel the greatest finding out like that. We are still trying to understand what it means for our contracts because we have nine years left on The Piazza restaurant contract and five years on the Signorelli’s Deli and I have only just opened my Italian supermarket, Il Mercato.

“It’s a bit of a kick in the teeth. Rent in Cambridge is expensive anyway so I don't know where I could go if I have to leave. I have asked for a meeting with them and they have agreed to see me in two weeks because I have three businesses there."

Meanwhile, Alex Crepy who owns Amelie restaurant in the centre, remained optimistic.

He said: “It’s business as usual for us. Nothing changes if a new landlord comes in as long as their leases carry on. There might be office space put into the empty units but legally there is nothing that can be done unless someone is willing to pay the price to buy everyone out of their leases.

“The Grafton is quite an empty place so if people came in to work there it would be of benefit to the restaurant. We have about seven years left on the lease.”

The core of the site reopened in early 2020 after a £28.5million refurbishment programme but, with the retail sector still readjusting to the reshaped economic landscape, the view now appears to be that the site could have value to other types of client.

Alex Signorelli, who owns three Italian food outlets in the Grafton Centre.
Alex Signorelli, who owns three Italian food outlets in the Grafton Centre.

Savills’ research has shown that Cambridge saw £1.21billion of life science related capital raised in 2020, along with a considerable demand from life sciences occupiers for lab space. However there are no commercially marketed labs in the city centre.

The head of planning at Cambridge City Council, Stephen Kelly, said the sale was “news to us” and that officers have not had any “detailed engagement” with Legal & General yet.

He said: “They have identified some aspirations for redevelopment and different uses and for redevelopment. Obviously we are considering the appropriateness of those and whether that involves total replacement of The Grafton centre or reuse of the existing buildings. We are still in the information gathering phase for the announcement.”

Cllr Lewis Herbert, the Labour leader of the city council, said: “Should the centre be sold, the council would plan to work collaboratively with the new owners, in a similar way we have worked with L&G, and with the community and local businesses, to ensure their needs and views are considered.

He added: “We see the possible changes as a three-way relationship – including a voice for the community and local businesses, just as we did when L&G announced changes in 2017 and 2018.

“The Grafton is a key part of the city centre’s vitality and, despite changes in how people shop, future retail demand and independent businesses around the Grafton, it will continue to be hugely important and an asset that Cambridge values.”

The next step would be to develop a supplementary planning document guiding council decisions, as we did in 2018, not just for the centre but also for the wider Burleigh Street and Fitzroy Street areas.

City council opposition leader, Liberal Democrat Tim Bick, underlined the need for the council to shape what happens next in the area.

The Grafton Centre showing empty shops, food court and closed Vue cinema. Picture : Simon Hall @SimonHallNews.
The Grafton Centre showing empty shops, food court and closed Vue cinema. Picture : Simon Hall @SimonHallNews.

He said: “What is important is that the city does not succumb to purely ad hoc fixes from property owners and developers, all acting in isolation from each other. The people of Cambridge deserve a say over what their city centre looks like in the future. They could do that through the council sketching out what is in the interests of local people and developing a consensus which can guide private and public decision-makers.”

The founder of Indie Cambridge, Anne Beamish, whose organisation promotes independent businesses in the city said she hoped there would be an opportunity to create a new kind of district.

She explained: “There is a concept other cities have adopted called the 15-minute community where you have shops and restaurants and services like doctors and you have small start up companies with units and somewhere that has something for all the residents. It would be great if it was like that. You have two pedestrianised walkways you could do so much more with than are currently being done.”

She added: “Everybody is shopping online and that's been coming for a long time. I think the pandemic just accelerated all the issues that were there. But if you can create a destination with people working there, and where they can access services like doctors you will actually create the footfall within the place rather than building shops and expecting people to come.

“I think the residents of Cambridge get a pretty raw deal in terms of what is there for them, as so many buildings in the city are not accessible, so if The Grafton was completely closed off and turned into university lab facilities that would be disappointing.”

Meanwhile, Steve O’Connor, co-organiser of Cam Creatives group, called on the owners to “do something exciting and revitalising” and “boost art and creativity” to provide some balance to Cambridge's scientific prowess.

“Think of it as a start-up accelerator for the arts - creativity and social good, not more tech and science.”

Read more

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