In 2019 Exeter City Council received a planning application for the redevelopment of the shopping centre site to build a Hotel and a Co-living block. The proposals were for 298 co-living rooms with amenity space and 230 cycle spaces, and the hotel would have 114 bedrooms with restaurant and 42 parking spaces. The Harlequins Centre has had a troubled recent past with many shop units being empty, and it’s exterior architecture is said by many to be ugly and over bearing, particularly the Paul Street elevations which are austere and without windows or any interest. The concrete vehicular ramp from Paul Street to the Guildhall Centre car park is an eyesore and a hindrance to redevelopment of the site, but needs to remain for the foreseeble future.
The application for redevelopment from Curlew Developments has been roundly condemned with over 200 objectors, including from the Civic Society and English Heritage. Whilst many of us wish to see the Harlequins Centre buildings replaced and for Paul Street to be made more attractive, the height and mass of the proposed redevelopment is not appropriate for this site, which is positioned in the City Centre Conservation area, is adjacent to the Roman City Wall (a national monument), and is adjacent to the St Davids Conservation area and homes in Northernhay Street.
As a result of the large number of objections, the applicant submitted slightly revised proposals in May 2020 by reducing the height of the two blocks by one floor, removing co-living rooms from the Hotel block, and changing the designs of each block to differentiate each. And due to further objections, especially from Historic England, additional amendments were made in July 2020 to remove one floor from the Hotel block and some accommodation from the Co-living block. The overall level of accommodation after the second amendments is 251 co-living rooms and 138 cycle spaces and the hotel will have 116 bedrooms with 44 car park spaces. The Co-living block has five floors of accommodation plus the ground floor which is 1.5 floor height, and a roof parapet to shield equipment located there; in all this equates to seven storeys, but adjacent buildings are 3-4 storeys. The Hotel block is similar in height to the Guildhall Centre but the tower part now extends to six storeys from street level with the block fronting Paul Street extending to five storeys. The development is still overbearing onto properties in Northernhay Street.
After a long period of inaction there seems to be some new movement in this case. ‘Devon Life’ published this article on 4 May online: Ghost town shopping centre to be demolished. The article notes: ‘Due to ‘changes in the economy’, hotel plans were axed and planning permission was granted in January 2022 for Harlequins to be demolished and two blocks of cluster flats and self-contained studios to be built. There will be a total of 378 rooms across a six and a seven storey building. According to Curlew Capital, the accommodation won’t be designated specifically for students, with planning documents outlining: “The accommodation will be available to everyone over the age of 18 and increasingly co-living is becoming a less niche sector, with a broadening demographic as more people turn to renting as a credible lifestyle choice, enjoying the increased flexibility that it can offer. “The fully-furnished nature of the units, with minimal maintenance responsibilities and the security of living within a managed scheme with access to a wide range of amenities is also increasingly attractive to a wide range of people”. In its planning permission decision notice, Exeter City Council explained that the development must not commence any later than three years after the date permission being granted, meaning that demolition of Harlequins will begin by January 2025. In the meantime, Harlequins remains a shell of what it once was, having previously been home to a range of local and national businesses. It’s no longer accessible to the public and is becoming increasingly boarded up but a number of shopfronts are still visible on the outer part of the building.’