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Just 15 per cent retail space proposed in vision for redeveloped Grafton centre





Developers have revealed that almost half of The Grafton is vacant – and they plan for just 15 per cent of it to be used for retail in future.

The site is proposed to become a new research hub for the life science sector, alongside new retail, food and beverage units, as well as a new Premier Inn hotel.

Artists' impression of the redeveloped Grafton centre
Artists' impression of the redeveloped Grafton centre

The Pioneer Group says repurposing The Grafton as an innovation hub for life sciences offers the “sustainable reuse of an existing building in a sustainable location”.

But councillors have argued that they will “have a job to do” to convince residents it is what is needed in the city centre.

Richard O’Boyle, CEO of Pioneer Group, told Cambridge City Council during a pre-application briefing: “We’re not just developers that build, lease and then sell. We operate the facility for the long term.

“We will include all our technologies of business, so from an incubator accelerator, scale-up programmes, outreach programmes – and what that means is we’re long-term neighbours for the community.”

It was revealed at the meeting that The Grafton is 48 per cent vacant by unit compared with 18 per cent nationally, with 13 of the centre’s retail units standing empty for more than two years.

Footfall is also down by 12 per cent when compared with pre-Covid figures. Meanwhile, the laboratory availability rate in Cambridge is a tiny 0.2 per cent.

John O’Shea, centre manager of the Grafton, said: “There are two main factors that have affected retail and retail property in recent years. They are the increasing prevalence of online trade and Covid.”

He explained that changes in the industry which would have taken place over a period of years took place in one as a result.

“Some are cutting their retail portfolios back by as much as 40 per cent,” Mr O’Shea told councillors.

He continued: “You can see nationally [and] you can see locally, not just at The Grafton, but we’ll also be aware that the Grand Arcade are changing their plans to include an element of leisure, and we’re all aware that Lion Yard’s original planning application, which was all retail and restaurant dominant, now includes a proportion of offices.

“Looking at The Grafton centre, 48 per cent of our footage is now vacant – that is massively above the national average. Many of our stores are sitting there empty – footfall has not recovered. It’s currently 12 per cent down on pre-Covid levels.

“But because of the decreasing footfall and because of the lack of growth opportunities here, more and more stores are telling us that it’s not sustainable at The Grafton centre.”

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.

A presentation, which was shown to councillors earlier this month, revealed that retail will make up 10,419 sq m of the redeveloped centre’s 70,202 sq m.

Artists' impression of the redeveloped Grafton centre in Cambridge
Artists' impression of the redeveloped Grafton centre in Cambridge

Elsewhere, a gym will occupy 1,780 sq m, a hotel 4,602 sq m and a cinema 5,198 sq m.

The remaining 69 per cent of the site (48,203 sq m) will be used for laboratory space for life sciences.

Cllr Martin Smart (Lab, King’s Hedges) told the developers: “I get the impression in city centres that no one quite knows what they’re doing, so hopefully you can get it right in the mix.”

He added: “I think there is a job to be done to convince residents that lab space is correctly positioned in the middle of the city centre like you’re planning to do.”

Mr O’Boyle explained that the scheme as currently proposed retains 70 per cent of the centre, with very little of the building being knocked down.

Jonathan Bainbridge, member of the planning team at Bidwells, was keen to point out that retail sat at the heart of the proposals, and it will be centred around “value and convenience” rather than creating competition for the Grand Arcade.

Mr Bainbridge said the developers hope that the project will result in an increase in footfall to Burleigh Street and Fitzroy Street to “try and benefit the traders that are situated there currently”.

But he explained that the developers did not own the land in those streets so have “no control over it whatsoever” in terms of how improvements there are shaped.

He said: “It would be very challenging for us to unilaterally implement improvements within those spaces.

“We’ve got to think about that in the context of the millions of pounds of investment that would be going into the public realm that is within our ownership, that we can deliver, and that we can deliver on day one and that the city council can control.

“So we’re not saying that we’re not willing to talk. We do want to talk about it. But at the moment we don’t have an answer to that because it does require partnership and collaboration and we’d like to help facilitate it.”

Opposition leader Cllr Tim Bick (Lib Dem, Market) responded: “If you’re trying to draw a line around what you control and what you don’t control then we’re back to the concept of a spaceship landing and looking after itself, and being inwards.”

The meeting heard that there will be 2,000 jobs created within the building and “at least half of those” will be for people who do not have a degree qualification.

The laboratory space will be in use all day, with some activities taking place overnight.

The development will also include a 600 per cent increase in the ‘greening’ of the site, although the developers admit this is from a “very low baseline”.

Cllr Bick pressed the developers’ representatives on how much water the labs would require.

Mr Bainbridge responded: “We’re doing work at the moment to be able to answer the question in the level of detail that’s necessary to be able to reassure the authority that the impact wouldn’t be an unacceptable one.

“I think you’re right to say that labs can use substantial amounts of water, but they can also be very well designed so that they don’t.

“And so we’ve got to demonstrate that that’s the case in terms of how the water system is managed within the building.”

The scheme does not include any housing beyond retaining what is already part of the site. One vacant unit will be lost as part of the redevelopment.

The redeveloped site also includes 824 cycle spaces, which would be secure and would include lockers and showers.

Artists' impression of the redeveloped Grafton centre
Artists' impression of the redeveloped Grafton centre

The plans also include the use of solar panels on the roof and heat pumps, as well as rainwater recycling for “at least half of the toilet provision”. The developers are also exploring the use of grey water.

They are also examining whether The Grafton could provide a permanent home for Cambridge Science Centre, which would be an “important component” of the project.

And they have been speaking with Anglia Ruskin University, located nearby in East Road, about the possibility of providing an incubator space for its students.

It is planned that the labs will offer outreach programmes to schools to encourage students to look at careers in STEM.

The developers say they are particularly interested in working with diverse and underrepresented groups like girls and those from different ethnic groups.

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 those plans, which would maintain retail space on the ground floor, with office space on upper floors.

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.

A further planning application for the main Grafton redevelopment project will follow.

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



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