After the Shop, Pt 1: Past Adaptive Reuse on Coney Street

Like many high streets in the country, Coney Street has several empty shop units. With retail trends changing, we need to reconsider the future of a once thriving high street. Coney Street has many historic buildings, and in the last of our workshops, we examined how their uses have changed in the past, and how they might once again be adapted to breathe new life into the street.

Coney Street, c.1900.
From York Explore Archive.

In the past, the street was a destination for shopping. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the businesses sitting next door to each other could meet practically any need you might have. A 1913 trade directory tells us among a variety of shops, there were linen drapers, silk merchants, solicitors, a hotel, and a dentist. Rather than the big shops that we see today, in the past they tended to be smaller, independent businesses, some of which also manufactured the goods that they sold. On Coney Street this included watchmakers, tailors, and even a gun factory.

As well as having different types of shops, in the early twentieth century the buildings on Coney Street could have multiple uses at the same time. In what is today the clothes store Mango, there used to be five different businesses, we imagine them splitting the office space like a kind of old version of hot-desking! 

While shops on Coney Street might seem familiar to us now, what is less familiar is the idea of  people living on the street. The 1911 Census reveals that 235 people lived here, in houses, flats, and the businesses they worked at. For example, 42 people resided in the department store Leak and Thorp, while a further 58 people are recorded as living in shops, probably on the upper floors. 

For at least the last 50 years, debates about the future of high streets have included conversations about the possibility of greater residential use of the street, and a return to people living over shops. However, it is important to acknowledge that we are not just seeing a crisis of the under-use of upper floors but also vacancy on the ground floor. Innovative solutions are needed to reimagine the future of our high streets. 

For Coney Street in particular, inspiration and hope can be found in ways buildings have been already adapted and reused to meet new purposes.

The Yorkshire Herald building is an example of successful adaptive reuse.

Some of the transformations are relatively simple to spot. When City Screen was built in 2000, the new structure gracefully incorporated part of the old Yorkshire Herald building. Even the Herald’s external branding was retained, proudly displaying the history of the building to all those viewing it from the river.

Other examples of adaptive reuse are inside buildings, and so are easy to miss. W H Smith’s is actually made up of 3 different buildings built at different points across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Once you get your eye in, you can still spot very domestic features (such as paneling, grand staircases and even fireplaces) nestled in amongst displays of books and stationary.

The former site of the Leak and Thorp store is now three separate units.

And what was once the huge Leak and Thorp store, is now three separate shopping units, neatly divided across and between the original shop’s grand four stories. Looking to the future, such a division of large units into smaller scales might provide a viable option for start-ups and independent businesses taking their first steps, like those we find in Spark on Piccadilly.

When thinking about the future of Coney Street, we need to consider what new—or maybe returning—uses we’d like to see. To see some of the suggestions provided by participants in our final workshop, see After the Shop, Pt 2: Adapting Coney Street for the Future.