‘Imaginative’ revamp plotted for Debenhams Manchester

German investor AM Alpha has detailed plans to redevelop the 370,000 sq ft Art Deco building on Market Street into offices and a shopping arcade, described by an advisor as “a total repurposing of a much-loved asset to celebrate its heritage”.

The proposals, designed by Jeffrey Bell Architects, include a four-storey rooftop extension featuring offices and several ‘winter gardens’ where the original skylights used to be, and a central atrium that stretches the entire height of the building.

“This is a wonderful piece of design and AM Alpha and its partners are to be applauded for a bold and imaginative scheme to celebrate the building and make it fit for the 21st century,” Bob Dyson, Manchester property advisor at CBRE, told Place North West. The consultancy has been working with AM Alpha on asset management and design development for more than a year.

AM Alpha, a multi-family office focused on real estate and based in Munich, purchased the Rylands Building – Debenhams’ flagship Manchester store – for £87m in 2017. It aims to redevelop the asset following the troubled retailer’s second administration in as many years, in April.

Shortly after appointing administrators, Debenhams said it had struck a deal with landlords to keep most of its 142 UK stores open, but seven stores closed permanently after the Covid-19 lockdown following others earlier in the year and Debenhams acknowledged that a “handful” more sites could be at risk.

The Market Street Debenhams is one of the stores that has remained open and trading, and it is understood that the redevelopment proposals – for which a planning application has yet to be submitted – have no immediate impact on its staff and operations.

Under the plans, the grade two-listed Rylands Building, designed by architect Harry Fairhurst in 1932, would be redeveloped to provide a new shopping arcade on the ground floor, with the layout returned to its original 1930s configuration by dividing the space into multiple smaller retail units occupied by “artisan” retail and leisure uses.

The basement is planned to house shopping, dining and leisure facilities, accessed via an escalator entrance onto Tib Street. The rest of the building is to become offices, which will bring the vacant fifth, sixth and seventh floors back into use and regenerate the lower floors currently used by Debenhams’ retail offer.

There would be a four-storey rooftop extension for use as further office space, according to the plans set out on a dedicated website. This section would feature several covered winter gardens in place of the original skylights, and a huge central atrium would reach the entire height of the building, “enlivening the space and flooding it with natural light”, Dyson said.

Meanwhile, the reworked ground floor retail is intended to create “the 2020s equivalent of a 1930s shopping arcade”, representing a total repurposing of the space to celebrate its heritage and prepare the building for the changing retail environment. “The project could take two to three years, and the idea is to get it ready for when the economy recovers following the slowdown caused by the pandemic,” Dyson said.

Bob Dyson CBRE

CBRE’s Dyson: “This is a wonderful piece of design”

The Rylands building is let to Debenhams until 2039.

AM Alpha’s managing director Martin Lemke said: “Since we bought the building, we had the vision to transform this landmark into a vibrant, fully occupied building with a long-term future. Now, we have set out our vision in the proposed plans.

“Once plans are approved, we can deliver a [special] office environment at a pivotal gateway location between Manchester’s central core, the Northern Quarter and Piccadilly, which will attract larger independent office occupiers to the city centre, promote job creation and support the post-Covid-19 economic bounceback.”

Debenhams declined to comment. AM Alpha has been contacted for further information on when it intends to submit a planning application to Manchester City Council.

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