As more and more former department stores and even whole shopping centres struggle to attract new occupiers, investors and developers are increasingly looking at alternative uses for these vast spaces.

Step forward the Life Sciences real estate sector.  Developer Pioneer Group has recently had plans approved to convert a large part of the Grafton Centre in central Cambridge into a 756,000 square feet scheme with 518,000 sq ft dedicated to Life Sciences.  The building will provide a range of accommodation across the occupier life cycle, with spaces suitable for large international companies alongside smaller fitted space for start-ups.

Across in Oxford, the former Debenhams building in the City Centre has been marketed by Savills as suitable for life sciences use.   It is understood that Pioneer Group are also close to a deal here, giving them two large inner-city life sciences hubs, preserving retail as a minority use in each case.  In Stevenage, The Reef Group are re-purposing vacant shops into laboratory space, alongside more social facilities, including cafes, bars and a cinema whilst in Bath, the former Debenhams store at 17 Southgate Place is being redeveloped to provide 75,000 sq ft of lab enabled office space with retail on the ground floor.

There is clearly a trend evident, both in developers seeing value in city centre life sciences offerings but also in these buildings themselves.  Often large, with the floor to ceiling height that can accommodate the air handling plant needed to service a laboratory and existing good lifts and loading facilities that life sciences occupiers require, the spaces can lend themselves to re-purposing in this way, avoiding the need for demolition and reconstruction, with all the cost of embodied carbon that this entails.  A central location, close to other amenities is also likely to appeal to the young, social demographic of workers that the life sciences sector strives to recruit.

The re-purposing of department stores and shopping centres that retain a retail element or are close to an exiting offer provides a unique opportunity to maintain the high street, driving footfall back into town centres during the working day which ultimately, it is hoped, will also support the remainder of the retail and leisure offerings surrounding such buildings.   The author sees this is a trend that is here to stay, as the life sciences real estate sector continues to expand.