The developers of a purpose built student block in Exeter city centre have applied for planning permission to convert several of its street-level retail units to student accommodation.
The Depot currently includes eleven ground floor retail and leisure units in addition to 715 student bedrooms. But the developer has so far failed to secure commercial tenants for eight of the units.
The proposals are to create nineteen student bedrooms by reconfiguring five of these units, which would increase the total number of student bedrooms in the block to 734.
The changes would mean approximately 25% of the designated retail and leisure space would be converted.
The Depot was built in two phases by Mace Developments Limited on the site of the former Stagecoach depot between Bampfylde Street, Summerland Street, Cheeke Street and Belgrave Road in Exeter city centre.
Construction of the six to eight storey block was due for completion by the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year but was delayed and alternative accommodation had to be found for hundreds of student tenants.
Marketing and promotion of the retail units began in late 2018. In September 2020 a Co-op store opened at the Cheeke Street/Belgrave Road corner of the building, opposite the Vue cinema, and the Department of Work and Pensions are intending to relocate the Job Centre from its current position on Western Way to two of the units on Belgrave Road.
However the developer says that there has otherwise been “no confirmed interest from high street names or nationally recognised chains”. Informal offers from other businesses such as start-ups have been rejected on the basis they were “not commercially viable”.
Attempts to find “meanwhile” or “pop-up uses” for the spaces have so far also been unsuccessful.
Planning permission for the development was originally granted for the first phase in January 2017 and the second in June 2019.
The applications were considered in the context of Exeter’s Local Plan Core Strategy, which sets out the strategic vision for development in the city. This includes “maintaining a vital and viable mix of uses in the city centre and delivering development to enhance Exeter’s position as a premier retail and cultural destination.”
The site also falls within the Grecian regeneration area defined in the strategy. It says that developments in this area will “enhance the city’s unique historic townscape quality”, “create places that encourage social interaction” and “enhance and expand the city’s retail function to improve Exeter’s draw as a regional shopping centre”.
A planning officer’s report accompanying the application also said the buildings were “designed to have active and transparent frontages” with the positioning of the retail units allowing forecourt areas “which could be used for seating in association with cafes etc”.
The recent application to renew previously-granted planning permission for an eight storey 108-bed student accommodation block on the site of the King Billy public house includes similar plans for a retail unit and a pub or restaurant space on Longbrook Street.