So far he has says he has spent well over £400,000 buying the site and restoring the dilapidated building. But proposals have been refused amid fears for the local green belt.
In July 2021, Sunderland City Council’s planning department received an application for the property on Coxgreen Road in the Shiney Row ward.
13 pictures as Sunderland fans celebrate promotion in the city centre
13 fantastic pictures from the STACK at Seaburn as Sunderland clinch play-off final win
'Everyone loved him' - Family pay tribute after funeral of motorcycle crash victim Anthony 'Buster' Kirtley
13 of your fan pictures ahead of Sunderland's League One play-off final at Wembley
Tributes paid to ‘massive’ Sunderland fan Tony Staplin after tragic death in County Durham crash
The 1878 building was Offerton and Coxgreen School before becoming an art studio, then a storage outbuilding.
New plans aimed to change the use of the building to a "coffee house and kitchen" serving hot and cold food and drink, with indoor and outdoor seating.
An application form submitted to the council said the plans would create two full-time and four part-time jobs. Parking was also proposed within a section of field to the rear via the existing access onto Coxgreen Road.
The main reasons for refusal are “substantial harm” to the green belt including impacting on its openness and causing an "adverse visual impact".
But Mr Richards said: “The area’s a greenbelt, so to develop anything you have to display ‘special circumstances’ or benefits to people in the area. The council haven’t said what ‘special circumstances’ are.
“They haven’t compromised anywhere and all their answers have been very vague. There are similar businesses in the same green belt area.
“I put in the application and was asked for plans, which cost about £2,500. I didn’t ask for external structural changes. We wanted some outside seating for the summer. The top area of the site was for parking, because we were told 12-15 parking spaces were necessary.
“The plans were validated. The Environment Agency then said we needed a tree survey. That was another £500, but the agency was happy.
“Planning then said they wanted an ecology report; about £700, but we were all clear. The council then came back and told us to look at alternative inner-city sites. We did that, but then explained why the sites were inadequate.
“Then they came back about the car park’s surface. We put environmentally-friendly membrane surface in the plans; like they have in Herrington Park.
“Highways approved. Then there was another query when the person who did the did the initial impact assessment and was content had left. Someone else then came back with a completely different set of questions. The membrane wasn’t ‘appropriate’.
“The car park gates were then a problem, as they open up and expose the site to the public. But we’ll erect fencing so the car park is obscured.
“After the November storms destroyed the roof I had to go and find another £45,000 for a new one, to protect the £100,000+ I’d invested on the interior.
“It’s heartbreaking. People have asked why I invested so much before planning. But I was just trying to make a derelict building into something for people to enjoy. I’m in disbelief.”
Mr Richards says he will now re-submit the application and request referral to the planning committee.
For more information on the application and decision, visit Sunderland City Council's online planning portal and search reference: 21/01718/FUL.