Jonathan Schofield on the shock but welcome news of a developer actually listening to criticism
“It was wrong so we changed it,” says Gary Neville.
It takes a treble-winning, multi-England capped former footballer-turned-property developer to do what no other career developer has done in recent Manchester history: namely to respond to public dismay and a rebuke from Historic England and do an about-turn. And not just a little about-turn, not a tweak of cladding here and a dropping of a storey there, but a complete overhaul (see images above).
Instead of a high handed we-know-best-so-shut-up-and-let-us-professionals tell you how the city should move forward, it takes a man not originally from the industry to eat humble pie and say: “We received an unprecedented level of concern and objection. I couldn’t ignore that. Ryan (Giggs) and I have to walk around this city for the next 25 years. It’s our city. So we decided to rethink things, to try and find that balance between the heritage aspects of the site, the scale and massing issues and our ambitions to create a truly international standard development. We think Manchester deserves that.”
It’s a characteristic of developers and councils to react in the same way to popular disapproval. They pay lip service initially, but from the get-go it’s clear they intend to ignore any criticism. This has long been evident and examples might include the grotesque Rowlinson towers at Pomona, Renaker’s Castlefield proposals and the pretty but utterly pointless and expensive link building on Library Walk.
‘Consultation’ has become a meaningless word. If there was a Developers Dictionary, consultation is defined as ‘an onerous legal requirement to be adhered to for the shortest possible time in a hard to find location which will result in nothing much’.
If there is criticism the developers and councils dig in their heels and ignore the fact that while it is their money and their gamble, there are still planning guidelines to be adhered to and that their structures will be public and affect the amenity of citizens either in a positive or a negative way for years.
Neville with the consortium behind him has taken a different view at St Michael’s. He has listened and responded: “We underestimated the emotional aspects of the site,” he admits. The result is a completely revised proposal for the 1.5 acre site retaining valuable older elements.
These older elements, the retained Portland stone facade of the former police station, and particularly the Sir Ralph Abercrombie pub, will add great charm and context to the site. The proposed square to the north of and adjoining the boozer will bring immediate life to the site. Meanwhile, removing one of the proposed two towers and twisting it on to a different axis means the visual noise of the original plans has been turned down. Keeping Bootle Street Police Station’s Portland stone element will also make sense of the name St Michael’s, the patron saint of the police.
"For many clients it’s all about the return on the investment, the gross to net, Gary’s very different from this.”
“I really liked elements of the original scheme and regret losing them, but I think we’re going in the right direction with this one, although, of course, it is a design that is still progressing, particularly with regard to the tower,” says Neville.
The tower will be 134.5m high (442ft in old money). This will make it easily the tallest tower in the central city core, only 35m lower than Beetham Tower to the south. Confidential wants to offer a word of advice here. We think the new architects behind the masterplan and the various buildings on the St Michael’s site, Hodder + Partners, should aim to make a big bold statement here. They should go for broke and give us something remarkable etched on the Manchester skyline.
“I don’t like glass towers. That was one of the instructions given to the original architects Make, but we went too heavy. The tower has yet to be designed and that’s Stephen’s (Hodder) job, but I will assure you of something about the project,” says Neville leaning forward. “I’ve been eleven years on St Michael’s and we won’t compromise on our ambitions. I want the buildings to sit well within their area but I have not changed my commitment to providing, for example, a superb five star hotel and the finest apartments in Manchester linking them through great food and drink.
“One key component for me has always been quality spaces. In this instance we’ve put a green space on the roof with spectacular stairs. I see this area being lively, vibrant, an energetic space that people will want to seek out and enjoy.”
Stephen Hodder appreciates the enthusiastic way Neville talks about the project. “Gary immerses himself in the designs. He looks at them from all the different angles and wants to understand everything. For many clients it’s all about the return on the investment, the gross to net, Gary’s very different from this.”
Given the new design, given the compromise that has resulted in retention of the Bootle Street Police Station frontage and the Abercrombie pub, it will be interesting to see how those who howled so loudly at the original proposals react. In part this will be down to Hodder’s completed design for the tower which we should be able to judge by late summer.
Let’s hope the changes already made are applauded by objectors. Historic England has made a ‘positive response’. Yet, already Confidential has seen comments on social media surrounding the change of plans concerning ‘affordable housing being a priority’. Yes, affordable housing is of course, an absolute imperative, but not here, not on this site. St Michael’s should be all about show-off city centre glamour in an area that’s been underutilized for decades. To use the favourite word of the MEN Diary, it should be swanky. Proper swanky.
“I’m positive about Manchester and I’m positive about St Michael’s and the role it will play in the city,” says Gary Neville. But it’s the words, ‘it was wrong so we changed it’, that reverberate around my brain as I leave his Knott Mill flat and office. I wonder when another developer will ever say that again in Manchester. Odds on they won’t, but let’s hope Gary Neville has set a precedent in displaying humility in the face of public outcry.
Detailed proposals (including the finalised design for the tower) will be the subject of a public consultation in August before plans go before the council. Keep up to date on developments here.