Saturday, 6 August 2016

Own Goal: the negative impact of the proposed St. Michael's development in Manchester

The proposal, called St. Michael's, revealed in July 2016 for the redevelopment of a large block, mainly occupied by the redundant Bootle Street Police Station and the Manchester Reform Synagogue will have a serious negative impact on a number of historic properties in the vicinity of Albert Square, Deansgate and Peter Street in Manchester. What is at present a largely continuous perimeter block bounded by Jackson's Row, Southmill Street and Bootle Street in an elongated rectangle is set to have its form inverted by the introduction of a diagonal route between two black clad towers of 31 and 21 storeys respectively placed in a staggered arrangement on the site. The groundscape is advertised as new public space for the city, although it is effectively a partially covered commercial mall which negotiates a significant change of level, called in the enthusiastic local press 'Manchester's Spanish Steps'. The enthusiasm is at least in part due to the leaders of the project being former Manchester United footballers Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, this being one of a series of development projects which have brought the influence of the city's football wealth to bear on its urban form. In the long term this project poses a threat to the heritage amenity of the civic core, both because of the size of the two towers, but also the erosion of the street network's primary importance in this area of the city.

In the current proposal, revealed ahead of a planning application in September, the north eastern corner of the block at the junction of Jackson's Row and Southmill Street is left open to create a commercially active plaza intended to connect to Albert Square and Manchester Town Hall. However this new plaza is itself bounded on its southern edge by the shorter of the two over scaled towers, and therefore might be expected to be in shadow for much of the day and most of the year. A low pavilion attempts to provide some remnant of definition to the northern side of the plaza but appears to be only needed to mask the port cochere entrance to the larger tower. Given the need for drop off there and the inevitable delays, the street, Jackson's Row, which currently has a small amount of open space associated with the Synagogue, is likely to be reduced to a service zone, dominated and overshadowed as it will be by the lower storeys of the taller tower. The diagonal route, semi enclosed at its lower end before it connects to the plaza, is clearly intended to create a slice of mid-block townscape but will be essentially retail in character at the cost of severely compromising the life of the existing streets and their buildings, especially the historic Sir Ralph Abercromby pub which dates back to the industrial era and is currently proposed for demolition.

Similar urban strategies have been followed before on sites close by in Manchester in projects which are now deemed to be unsuccessful, such as the creation of the open corner plaza at the junction of Deansgate and Peter Street as part of the Great Northern development in the 1990s. Yet no lessons have been learned regarding the general reluctance of the public to animate these alien interventions of largely hard landscape. Instead Mancunians cling to the street network with which they are familiar. As the size of buildings increases due to commercial pressure the morphological integrity and therefore the coherence and comprehensibility of the city's pattern will continue to come into question. Ill-considered proposals such as St.Michael's are essentially anti-urban malls, which ignore the potential to animate the existing street network through creating active frontages to the public realm, and instead kill street activity through vacuous design gestures such as the blank black corner of the smaller tower which crash lands on the corner of Bootle and Southmill Streets. The Free Trade Hall, the Friends Meeting House and especially the civic plaza of Albert Square and Manchester Town Hall will all be compromised unless this proposal is vigorously opposed in the coming months.

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