ONE of the biggest empty properties in central York could become a new pub, sparking renewed controversy over the nature of the city centre.

Ossett Brewery wants to convert the former Fellini’s restaurant in Fossgate, which was more recently Leila’s tearooms. It is the third new pub plan in quick succession, following proposals by an independent trader to take over the nearby Army & Navy Stores and by Leeds Brewery to open an outlet in King’s Square.

The three plans would create 15 full-time and 24 part-time jobs between them but the moves have reignited the debate over vacant city centre sites being lost as potential shopping space. York Retail Forum’s chairman Frank Wood said it was “vital” for York to retain shop space.

John Howlett Planning, Ossett Taverns’ planning agents, said in a statement: “It would bring a vacant unit back into use, adding to the vitality and viability of the area.”

Leeds Brewery’s proposals would convert the former Your Move estate agency in King’s Square into a family-friendly pub, The Duke of York. Its co-owner Michael Brothwell said such schemes would “increase the chances of York remaining attractive for things other than shops”, and said: “Pubs which offer what we can are great for tourists.”

He stressed that their planned site had not recently been a shop.

But Mr Wood said: “Filling retail space is very difficult, but we really need to keep the retail experience primary for York to thrive.

“It’s possible York is getting saturated with pubs and restaurants, but retailers are reluctant to expand until they see which way the economy is going to go.”

The issue is to be discussed by York’s City Team, including business and council representatives.

Guildhall councillor Brian Watson said York had too many bars and restaurants and risked being seen as “a pub city”.

He said: “I’ve nothing against plans like these, but it must reach the point where we consider what we lose in retail space – the city centre is becoming too pub and restaurant-orientated.”

Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, welcomed the plans.

She said: “We need a balance between a safe night-life and one that encourages people to use the city-centre properly.

“If councils have concerns, they would have our full support, but I think pubs owned by breweries and offering food are things we should be encouraging, for more people to try different types of beer.

“We should trust councils to ensure licensing is dealt with in the proper way.”

A British Retail Consortium spokeswoman said it “encouraged flexibility” and said: “Councils have a responsibility to ensure high streets have a clear vision and the right retail and leisure mix.”

A spokesman for the British Independent Retailers Association said cities relied on vibrant retail sectors, but said: “It is better that empty shops are trading in some fashion – we would prefer shops to be shops, but if we can’t have that, we still prefer units to be full.

“It doesn’t help York to have empty shop windows which deter consumers from visiting.”

Coun Watson previously voiced concerns following restaurant plans for a 161-year-old Little Stonegate building at the back of the old Borders book store.