I write with comments on the proposed St. Michael's development further to those made at the consultation event in the Manchester Reform Synagogue on 13 September 2016.
The presentation indicated a series of lower alternative arrangements had been considered, although the preferred solution was by far the tallest and therefore would have the greatest negative impact on the surrounding cityscape, the form and scale of which maintains a high degree of physical integrity as a pre-eminent example of a Victorian city. Too much accommodation is proposed to be squeezed on to the site in an arbitrary fashion which will harm neighbouring buildings and the working life of their occupants.
2. Privatised Public Space
Much is made in the presentation of the new 'public' spaces. Their inclusion is a cause of the exaggerated height of the towers, and neither will they be 'public' in a traditional sense. The Lower Square will destroy the current street line of Southmill Street to create a forecourt into the complex which, as the drawings indicate, will then be littered with a series of screens and cabins to modify the inevitably miserable environment of a space 'designed' to sit on the north side of a 21 storey black tower. It was suggested at the consultation that it will be privately managed. The Upper Square is essentially a drinking and dining terrace raised above the level of Bootle Street but separated by an ill-defined service zone. The strained connection between the two spaces via staircases is an indication of the inappropriateness of the initial 'towers + plazas' planning moves on this site.
3. Street Fontages
Bootle Street and Jackson's Row are quintessential back streets, but streets none the less, with a mixture of historic frontages and back entrances. The height of the proposed towers at 31 and 21 storeys will seriously harm these streets as they will require service zones accessible from the street for the offices, hotel, apartments and restaurants proposed, creating hostile canyons which will kill activities at ground level that help deter antisocial behaviour. Southmill Street is a major connecting street between Albert Square and Manchester Central with the dignified stone front of the former Police Station forming part of a sequence of 'palazzo' type facades angled to create an interesting townscape effect which leads the pedestrian on in either direction. There is a particular violence to the vandalism with which this broader urban sequence is destroyed by a sheer, windowless, black wall and what appears to be a flimsy glazed screen masking the 'space left over after planning' of the Lower Square.
The quietly dignified presence of the current Synagogue on Jackson's Row is ill served by the proposal to locate the new Synagogue in the service zone of the new towers, its entrance from Jackson's Row adjacent to the service entrance for the hotel tower and the principal space for worship concealed somewhere beneath the drinking and dining terrace of the Upper Square. Remodelling the Southmill Street frontage of the Police station could provide a new home for the Synagogue, preserving its townscape value and freeing up areas in the middle of the site for commercial development.
5. Sir Ralph Abercromby
Historic pubs in British cities are often of middling architectural value, but they provide a good resource of social memory in a city such as Manchester and the present building should not be demolished, but incorporated into the new project for townscape reasons alone, forming as it does with The Nag's Head and The Rising Sun part of the fine grain of the Victorian city. Its historical association with Peterloo makes it a significant surviving landmark in Manchester's political past and therefore of great heritage value.
In early PR presentations of this project much was made of the site as being the 'missing link' between Albert Square and Spinningfields and therefore one expected connectivity for the general public to be improved by the development. On close examination of the proposal it is clear that the existing connecting streets, Bootle Street and Jackson's Row, will become more hostile to pedestrians because of the servicing needs of the over tall buildings, and that the diagonal route is effectively a commercialised dead end which fails to open the site up to anyone who is not a diner or drinker in the restaurants and bars, potential public amenity therefore being sacrificed to profit.
As mentioned earlier the Lower Square will be overshadowed by the 21 storey tower on its south side while the gap between the towers, aligned conveniently to receive the prevailing wind, will also have negative environmental consequences. Neighbouring buildings on the other side of Jackson's Row and further north will lose direct sunlight and therefore be harmed by the gratuitous height of the towers.
The public consultation illustrated alternative colour choices, but with an assured touch the design team chose the worst. The black colour currently proposed might have related contextually to an industrial city covered in soot but that is an image now decades out of date. This colour choice emphasises the imposing bulk of the buildings and, from my experience of working in a similarly black clad tower, will reduce light levels in the closeby neighbouring buildings by robbing them of reflected light as well direct sunlight. This colour choice cannot be justified on any sensible grounds.
9. Wider negative impact
The site sits at the heart of the civic realm, with some of its most important buildings the Friends Meeting House, Free Trade Hall, the ensemble of Albert Square, Manchester Town Hall and its Extension, and the Central Library all aesthetically compromised by this proposal. The two fingered salute these towers present will be visible from further afield and will harm the skyline of the city in distant views as well as in the close street views the design team appear to be too embarrassed to present.
In summary the current proposal is a poorly thought through one which should be totally reconsidered prior to any planning application being submitted. Advice from bodies such as Historic England, The Victorian Society and Save Britain's Heritage should be addressed in addition to the petitions and many comments which oppose the present scheme. This important site, the buildings that are on it and those that surround it deserve much better treatment.
Manchester School of Architecture