Debenham's Oxford Street

Westminster Labour Councillors have put forward a bold new plan to convert the vacant Debenham’s department store into ‘The Oxford Street Art House’ as a way of drawing UK and international shoppers back to the West End.

The future of London’s Oxford Street as central London’s ‘high street’ is a key economic question for Westminster, for London and for the UK economy. Major household names have been leaving Oxford Street for the past few years as retailing has been unable to withstand the online challenge – BHS, HMV and Top Shop have all departed.

Now, Debenham’s department store is closed and the building has been emptied of its stock, fixtures and fittings. There are no big retailing names waiting in the wings to snap up the seven-storey, 370,000 sq ft building. The future of other Oxford Street department stores, such as House of Fraser, are also in the balance.

So, if retailing is not the future for these huge buildings, what is?

If the shoppers and the tourists are going to be attracted back to Oxford Street it will need something special, something different and something unique. Oxford Street will need to offer families, day-trippers and holiday-makers a ‘great day out’ – a real experience, combining shopping with other leisure, cultural and entertainment activities. The empty Debenham’s store provides an opportunity to locate a range of these uses under one roof and act as a real magnet to draw people back to Oxford Street.

The ‘working title’ for this magnet is the ‘Oxford Street Art House’ and it could include the following:

  • The basement could include a floor of ‘maker space’ and studios which would provide craftspeople and artists affordable workspace to produce all kinds of art work, sculpture, pottery, jewellery, glassware and crafts. Working in partnership with London’s art schools and colleges, the space could be allocated to the ‘best and brightest’ of London’s graduates, with expert help available for them to launch themselves in business.
  • The ground floor could be split in two. The Oxford Street facing half could be dedicated to selling the arts and crafts produced from the basement workshops – the best of London – together with work from artists and craftspeople from the rest of the UK. This could be a unique shop window for the latest British art and a real attraction for tourists from across the globe. The rear half of the ground floor could become the new home for the long-awaited new Marylebone public library. Without a permanent home for getting on for 20 years, Westminster Council has been searching for a new location for the library ever since it moved from Marylebone Road. This would be a perfect location for the adults, children’s, reference and local history libraries, serving local residents north and south of Oxford Street.
  • The five upper floors could be laid out as galleries, each with its own theme and café areas, for example;
  • A Fashion gallery – displaying designs from the UK’s leading fashion and textile designers, including catwalks for use during London Fashion Week
  • An ‘Hidden Art’ gallery – exhibitions from some of the UK’s hidden public and private collections that are rarely available for the public to see
  • A Photography gallery – regular exhibitions of the work of British photographers
  • A Movie gallery – acknowledging the importance of Soho in the British Film industry, this gallery would feature exhibits from the film industry archive, and include screening rooms and hospitality areas
  • A Special Events gallery – this would be available for guest exhibitions and private hire
  • At the top of the building would be a publicly accessible Roof Garden, perhaps designed by The Royal Parks, and café, giving spectacular views of central London and beyond in all directions.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Labour’s City Management spokesperson, said:

“We hope that the City Council, major landowners and leading figures in the arts world show interest in our proposal and start investigating ways to make it a reality. This is a real opportunity to create a new facility that will both attract shoppers back to Oxford Street and also provide benefits for local residents.”

“Westminster City Council has allocated £150 million to regenerate the Oxford Street District. Some of that money will be spent on physical pavement widening and ‘greening’ works, but there must be a strong argument for allocating some of this cash to the Art House, providing a permanent attraction for Oxford Street. In addition, the capital cost of building the Marylebone Library is already included in the Council’s estimates and its early investment in the project would help to underwrite initial costs. 

The assumption has always been that the Council’s £150 million investment would be matched by the private sector. Contributions from the ‘Great Estates’ – The Crown, Grosvenor, Portman and Howard de Walden – would certainly help to bring the project forward.

There is a current example elsewhere in the UK where a vacant department store will be re-purposed as an arts hub. Plans have been unveiled to transform the vacant IKEA building in Coventry city centre into an arts and culture facility, through a partnership between Coventry City Council, the Arts Council and other local organisations.”

Councillor Pancho Lewis, Labour Councillor for West End Ward, said:

“Every indication is that in a post-covid world Oxford Street is not going to return to what it was like before. Our plan for Debenham’s would help breathe life back into the area by creating a new dynamic centre with arts, leisure, educational and entertainment uses that could be enjoyed by all.” 

“The Council should adopt this proposal and develop similar strategic initiatives to help build a better Oxford Street for the future. We need to use this moment, a period which has seen such huge economic downturn, to develop proposals that will genuinely meet the needs of residents, workers, and visitors”

The rear entrance to Debenham
The rear entrance to Debenham's which could be the entrance to the new Marylebone public library
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