Jonathan Schofield looks forward to dynamism on a key, but moribund, city centre site

St Michael’s, the huge central Manchester scheme fronted by Gary Neville, was first proposed in AD79 by Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman general who founded Manchester. Almost two millennia later, in January 2022, construction will begin. 

Joking aside, this project has been very a long-time arriving, almost a decade and a half after it was first mooted. It's apt then the Gary Neville fronted developer for the scheme is called Relentless. The latter has joined hands in a joint venture with "global investment company" KKR, headquartered in New York, to get things moving. 

The city is gaining so many rooftop and top floor dining spaces maybe we should connect them up with zip wires

This is good news, presently the site bounded by Southmill Street, Bootle Street and Jackson’s Row is a right mess. The only life in the area is provided by the Sir Ralph Abercromby pub, which will be retained, and Jackson’s Row synagogue which will be demolished but given a shiny new spec within the new development.

Mike Christodoulou, the landlord of the Sir Ralph Abercromby, told Confidentials, “I’m really happy that we’re going to get started, a breath of fresh air and a bit of security. This is a bit of good news for the city with all that’s been going on. I can’t wait to see it happening.”

The Abercromby will stay open throughout the redevelopment of the site. 

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The Sir Ralph Abercromby pub, saved and looking forward to a strong future. Image: Confidentials

So what is happening with St Michael's? 

The grand old Portland stone façade of the City Police Headquarters from 1937 is to be retained and polished and then gain glitz with 12 or 13 storeys of shiny new build attached and stretching back across the site. The new stuff will be stepped back to give us a chance to admire the older structure - a bit.

This is the first phase of the site development and is priced at £120m. The city will gain another rooftop restaurant for up to 900 guests plus 185,000 sq ft of offices and public realm. The city is gaining so many rooftop and top floor dining spaces maybe we should connect them up with zip wires. The ambition is to make this one of the more "sustainable" energy-efficient offices around. It always is, of course, has to be these days.

The contractor will be Bowmer & Kirkland. The main overall design is from Manchester-based Hodder+Partners. The global mega-practice Skidmore Owings and Merrill are involved too, designing the interiors with phase one for instance.

A tasty aspect of the plans is that public realm in the form of St Michael's Square from landscape specialist Planet-IE. Anything that increases the amenity of the city centre in that regard is to be welcomed. Planet-IE is just completing excellent work around the corner at Lincoln Square. If delivered as per the CGIs, this drab plot will be enhanced immeasurably and will feature music, food, drink and other merriment.

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St Michael's Square from Planet-IE will add to the amenity Image: Roland Dransfield

Controversies of the scheme

The most controversial aspect of the scheme was always the St Michael’s tower (originally towers) which will be phase 2 of the project, starting late next year and finishing by 2027.

As we’ve written before, this part of the St Michael's scheme, in particular, has been subject to "wrangling, fall-outs, petitions, hand-wringing, a change of height, a change of colour, a change of architect, a change of tack, a change of design and a change of direction. There's been planned demolitions, cancelled demolitions, two towers, one tower and now a 'lozenge' tower. Heritage groups waded in, the public waded in, councillors waded in, Gary Neville waded in and we waded in multiple times." 

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The dystopian MAKE Architects twin towers at St Michael's Image: MAKE Architects

The controversy was mainly down to two issues: the disastrous first proposals from MAKE Architects, a pair of black monoliths, straight from a dystopian sci-fi movie; the scale of the buildings which many thought would negatively affect the views and the context of Manchester Central Library and Manchester Town Hall.  

There were other factors. Landmarks such as the Abercrombie pub and the City Police Headquarters were to be demolished and the scheme always had a target on its back through the fame of Gary Neville. Developers aren't usually so high profile, no others having played football for Manchester United and England. 

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St Michael's and the former City Police Headquarters as it is now Image: Confidentials

After the twin tower scheme failure Hodder+Partners took over. The two towers became one and an attractive one as well with something of Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Tower in Milan about it - this is how we described it back in 2017. The tower will be 41 storeys high (around 137m, 450ft) with a 191 room upmarket hotel (of course) and 181 "luxury" apartments which Neville has previously said will be properly luxury rather than just marketed so. Of course, notwithstanding the much-improved design there will be continuing criticism of the tower due to its proximity to the main civic buildings of city. 

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The Hodder+Architects designed solution to the skyscraper element of St Michael's Image: Hodder+Partners
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At present much of the site of St Michael's is a wreck Image: Confidentials

A last couple of points. 

The scheme is called St Michael’s because the patron saint of the police service is St Michael and the former City Police Headquarters is on the site. As stated earlier in this piece, most of this considerable site in the heart of the city centre is an eyesore. St Michael wouldn't approve. It's good we have that January start date, dynamism is always preferable to stagnation. 

It's also interesting that this is the first major announcement with regards to city centre development of the new Council Leader Bev Craig's tenure. It's best to start with something significant even if this is simply a timing coincidence.  

Follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter @JonathSchofield

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