One of the most prominent buildings in Norwich city centre could be torn down to make way for 400 student flats and new shops.  

The empty site, which housed Debenhams until the department store shut three years ago, would be demolished under plans currently being drawn up and due to be submitted this summer.

If it gets the go-ahead, Stanford Real Estate, which bought the building located off Red Lion Street two years ago, intends to start work at the beginning of 2025.

The bulk of the building, known as Orford House, would be knocked down but the basement and ground floor would be kept.  

Eastern Daily Press: Debenhams in Norwich closed its doors in 2021Debenhams in Norwich closed its doors in 2021 (Image: Newsquest)

A new building, divided into different sections, would be constructed on the rest of the site.

Although not listed nationally or locally, when the proposals were revealed to Norwich city councillors on Thursday (June 8), it was highlighted that it “is seen locally by people as a building of value” – with councillors questioning whether this had been taken into account.  

Under the current plans – which would need the approval of Norwich City Council - the first two floors of the newly constructed building would be turned into shops, but the rest of the new site would become a 400-bed accommodation complex for students.

The various sections of the building would vary in height, but at its tallest, it would be three storeys higher than the current, six-floor, building.

Eastern Daily Press: The former Debenhams store could be demolishedThe former Debenhams store could be demolished (Image: Denise Bradley)

Mark Doohan, managing director of Benchmark Architects, who is working on the plans for the developers, told councillors: "The use of the site has been retail for some time and we intend to retain as much as possible on the ground floors."

But he said there was a need for student accommodation, while department stores were in decline.

Labour councillor Mike Sands said: "I am not resistant to change, but I do not think there has been much effort made to retain the fabric of the building.

"It is not a listed building, but it is seen locally by people as a building of value and you do not seem to acknowledge that."

Mr Doohan said consideration had been given to retaining more of the existing building.

Eastern Daily Press: The Norwich Debenhams store closed in 2021The Norwich Debenhams store closed in 2021 (Image: Denise Bradley/Newsquest)

But he said it would prove too difficult to convert the existing building into student flats - particularly given the sustainability targets of the project.

He said 16,000 square feet of retail would be retained, with the potential for that space to be subdivided into different shops.

He said the frontage for the shops would increase, extending into Orford Place, while the canopies which jut out from the side of the building would be removed.

Mr Doohan said: "It would look like a collection of buildings, rather than one large building."

READ MORE: King's Lynn: Go-ahead for flats in former Debenhams store

He said the design and materials used in the new building would fit in with the surrounding conservation area and with views of the castle and the developers would be discussing their plans with Historic England.

Council officer Robert Webb highlighted that the building was considered by City Hall's conservation team as a "non-designated conservation asset".

He said, when the planning application is lodged, the developers would have to demonstrate the building could not be retained.

Mr Webb said they would also need to provide evidence that there is a need for student accommodation and that the proposed loss of retail floor space is acceptable.

Mr Doohan said public consultation over the scheme – including a leaflet drop, a website about the project and an exhibition at The Forum - will be carried out before the plans are lodged.

Eastern Daily Press: Keith Driver, chairman of Norwich City Council's planning committeeKeith Driver, chairman of Norwich City Council's planning committee (Image: Archant)

Keith Driver, chairman of the council's planning committee, asked whether there would be separate entrances for students and shoppers.

Mr Doohan confirmed that would be the case and that there would be 24-hour security.

Eastern Daily Press: Liberal Democrat city councillor Judith LubbockLiberal Democrat city councillor Judith Lubbock (Image: ARCHANT EASTERN DAILY PRESS (01603) 772434)

Judith Lubbock, Liberal Democrat councillor, questioned whether the need for student accommodation had been established, given the UEA was, unusually, offering on-campus flats to second-year students.

Mr Doohan said the demand had been established and evidence would be provided when the plan are lodged.

Asked when the development might start, if permission is granted, Mr Doohan said: "If we got consent by the early part of the new year, then we would be beginning in 2025."

History of the Debenhams site

It has been a horse market, one of the oldest inns in Norwich called the Rampant Horse, a huge shop, a large hole, a playground, and a car park.

And now, after the global Covid pandemic brought the once cherished Debenhams department store to its knees, it could become homes for students.

But not in its current form - because the developers behind the plans for Orford House intend to demolish the bulk of the building.

It is a building which has stood in the city centre since the 1950s, rising from the ashes of its predecessor which was flattened in a Nazi bombing raid.

Before Debenham's it was Curls, a store which had been founded by the Curl Brothers - Edward, Jacob and Henley.

Eastern Daily Press: The Curls storeThe Curls store (Image: Newsquest)

Just after the turn of the century in 1902, the shop was rebuilt and extended.

It had a handsome brass shop front, lit at night with eleven Ediswan lamps and, inside, a high-tech electric lift.

But then it was gone. Destroyed on a single night in April 1942, during the Baedeker Raids.

Eastern Daily Press: Orford Place, after the 1942 bombingOrford Place, after the 1942 bombing (Image: Newsquest)

The site, once cleared, was used for various purposes, such as events and car parking until work started in 1953 on what was, at the time, the most modern comprehensive department store in East Anglia.

Eastern Daily Press: The former Curls site was cleared after the bombingThe former Curls site was cleared after the bombing (Image: Newsquest)

It opened in the spring of 1956. In the 1960s, Debenhams took over the business but it continued to trade under the Curl Brothers name until 1973.

Eastern Daily Press: The new store takes shape in the 1950sThe new store takes shape in the 1950s (Image: Newsquest)

But after decades as a department store, the Debenhams doors were closed for the last time in May 2021, as the famous name ceased trading across the UK.