For years a historic former shopping arcade was a weathered nightspot but investment in the city’s Northern Quarter could once again breathe life into Leeds Grand Arcade. Jonathan Brown reports.
Years of dilapidation, increasing numbers of empty units and a reputation as a venue packed with rowdy nightspots left Leeds Grand Arcade in need of help.
More than a decade of late nights and transient nightclubs have taken their toll on the once bustling Grade II-listed Victorian shopping arcade, which is situated between New Briggate and Vicar Lane.
But a retail renaissance appears to be on the horizon in what has become a forgotten part of Leeds among shoppers and families.
The early aftershocks of investment in the area are beginning to be felt, developers and traders are looking more favourably upon the area and the arcade’s occupancy levels have rocketed from just 30 per cent to near full in only a few months.
Owners ATC Properties have invested more than £700,000 in the arcade over the past 12 months, as a wave of optimism swoops over the north of the city centre following the opening of the £60m Leeds arena last month.
Chairman of ATC Properties, Chris Ure, feels the impact of investment is starting to be felt.
He told the YEP: “The Northern Quarter is definitely on the up, footfall has visibly increased since the First Direct Arena and Handpicked Hall opened.
“We are experiencing an increase in enquiries from independent occupiers wanting to locate to the Grand Arcade and be part of this vibrant scene.”
The June opening of two-storey Handpicked Hall has already seen 124 independent retailers sign up to move into its expansive arcade space and has been credited as helping to revive it.
Around £100,000 alone has been invested in transforming a quarter of the arcade’s neglected retail space, which used to house ‘purgatory’ and ‘heaven’ from the arcade’s old Heaven & Hell nightclub, into Handpicked Hall.
With sister venues in Ripon and Skipton, the business works on a department store model to encourage small start-up retailers in food, drink, crafts and fashion to take up space and get a foot on the business ladder.
Businesses including a bike shop, Afro-Caribbean bar/ restaurant and a new fashion retailer are the latest arrivals mooted in the arcade, which could bring the arcade to near full capacity for the first time in a decade.
Some of the independent retailers in Handpicked Hall have already expressed a desire to bring the building’s famous animated clock back to life through a £25,000 ‘Save the Grand Clock’ campaign.
Installed by Wm Potts & Sons of Leeds in 1898, the clock sits above the arcade’s Vicar Lane entrance.
Managing director of Handpicked Hall, Anthony Blackburn, said: “The Grand Arcade is one of the least recognised but most spectacular pieces of Victorian architecture in Leeds.
“I was told there was a glass wall at the top of Briggate and people don’t come that extra 200 yards as for two generations it’s become known as a destination for nightlife and not for shopping.
“We want to make it a destination for great local shopping and entertainment and, if you like, an entertainment quarter in the city.”
For years the arcade has been seen as a clubber’s paradise but the recent closure of it’s three-storey BED Club, which was formerly a Gatecrasher nightclub, could mark the end of an era.
ATC claims it has already had enquiries about transforming the venue, while turning at least some of it into small retail units and cafes appears a priority as it looks to shift away from the rowdy nightclub tag.
Nevertheless the Northern Quarter’s established independent bar scene, which stretches down lower Merrion Street and New Briggate through the likes of Mojo, Verve, Sela Bar and North Bar, is developing.
Yorkshire bar chain Arc Inspirations are renovating space below Handpicked Hall in the arcade to become its first city centre venture, The Pit, while there are new independents such as IT Bar and Belgrave Music Hall opening nearby.
The early stage proposals for lower Merrion Street to be pedestrianised could also boost the fortunes of the bar scene and retailers in the Northern Quarter.
ATC claim pedestrianisation of the street has “the unanimous support of local businesses, and would promote street café culture and street food” as well as enhance the independent vibe being seized upon in the Northern Quarter.
Meanwhile there are even suggestions that Leeds Grand Theatre could invest in a new entrance to revive the arcade’s atrium.
Mr Blackburn added: “Everything has moved towards Trinity but with what we are doing and with the arena opening, there is a chance for us to pull some of that footfall this way.
“It often takes a few pioneers to see the opportunity and then others join in and it just gathers momentum.
“This part of the city is a much bigger location and destination and if we shout out about the arcade other places can benefit.”
He said that the potential that the arena brings to the Northern Quarter, as far as businesses are concerned, is immense as the venue’s inaugural gig last month saw crowds of people pass through the arcade and up lower Merrion Street on their way there.
Leeds City Council estimate the arena will bring an additional £25.5m into the city each year.
Coun Richard Lewis, the council’s executive member for development and the economy, said: “A number of new exciting projects are under way, including the redevelopments of the Merrion Centre, two new hotels, and the opening of a number of new bars and restaurants.
“The arena is also a key driver in the creation of jobs, training opportunities and apprenticeships, and is expected to boost visitor numbers to Leeds by one million a year.”