When Ladywell leisure centre closed down in May 2013, the fate of the multi-storey building at 261 Lewisham high street looked unsure.
Four years on, the site – which remained empty for three years – is now a dynamic community project hosting local start-ups alongside social housing, in an inventive pop-up building, which has won several awards.
Perhaps one of the things that makes the colourful building – directed by Meanwhile Space Company – stand out is the ground floor, which houses nine local retail businesses run solely by women.
Their businesses – including a florist, jewellery maker, art collector and fashion shops, with even a café next door for a cuppa – emphasise quality products at a reasonable price.
Sukai Eccleston who runs unit Casilda’s Nice Things told ELL: “It’s great to be working with other women, we all have different experiences and backgrounds; it is exciting and challenging.
“As a group of women working together we are organising a number of events over the summer, an arts and crafts workshop and a wedding fair in September, we are bringing lots of traders in.”
Morgan Webber-Newman who runs Thunder & Lightning, a vintage clothes shop spoke of working collaboratively. She said: “We try and all work together and make group decisions.”
It was never intentional to have a female-led group. Meanwhile Space Co-founder Emily Berwyn said: “With Ladywell it was accidental,
“There are though, an increasing number of women who are skilled and looking for what we offer. The history of the company shows 80 per cent of the tenants have been women and at present it is a 70/30 split.
“People tend to cluster, they have similar ideas like in Ladywell. In particular here, they do have a really great support structure.”
The women, who work out of their pocket-sized units help promote all of the businesses, open one another’s shops and even take payments for their co-tenants.
Eccleston said: “We look after each others shops. We sell for one another, we take payments for each other, everything.
The women agree that PLACE/Ladywell is a supportive environment. They spoke of their businesses and how they got their units.
“I sell art and limited edition prints. I work with local artists to curate and showcase them in my shop,” Eccleston said.
Webber-Newman spoke of how she got her unit. She said: “A friend of a friend told me about the project and that it was right on my doorstep. I came and looked around, and thought this is great. Thunder & Lightning became reality.”
She has been living in Lewisham for three years now; she spoke of the venture. “It’s exciting, this is for many of us our first business.”
Gracelyn Forsythe, who owns Gems for Real, spoke of their products. “When people are coming in they are excited about it, they love what we have to offer.”
Their goal; a more affordable fare and something alternative that you might not find on the high street.
Inez Kochanowicz-Watson of HUTA Polska glassware told ELL: “I started it because I was bored of monotony and wanted good design for a reasonable price.
“I wanted beautiful and I wanted glassware with personality. Through HUTA, I am now designing locally and making soda and wine glasses, jars, carafes and other tabletop items that are youthful and interesting.”
The traders want more people to know about PLACE/Ladywell and are organising many events over the summer.
Forsythe spoke of the area. “We don’t have a natural footfall here, so we are working together to organise a number of events to bring people in, including a wedding fair and workshops.
“Brockley is well-established, we want this for Ladywell.”
Eccleston said: “The Ladywell leisure centre building was empty for a long time, so people got used to the idea that there was nothing here. We want more people to visit.”
Berwyns ambition to transform empty spaces, shows her determination for other community projects like PLACE/Ladywell and opportunities for new businesses owners to arise.
“Our main objective is to use wasted resources, buildings and spaces.
“Sites are still being left empty and we knew when Meanwhile Space started  we could start to change the traditional property process.
“We will continue to take on as many spaces as we can. We want people to test their business, that’s what we offer.
“That’s the driving force, how do we create this opportunity for people.”
The community spirit is clear at PLACE/Ladywell.
Eccleston added: “We are trying to work with local businesses as much as possible. We are promoting the space, getting it out there.”
PLACE/Ladywell hosts the retail spaces on the ground floor as just one part of the project; it too offers temporary social housing for up to 24 families on the upper floor for a maximum of five years.