Why keeping a low profile here might be best
Do we always need a plan?
One of the best qualities of British city centres is their largely ‘unplanned’ nature: a road widening here, a square there, an opportunity grabbed, but scarcely, in their formation, a big picture approach.
Let’s not masterplan the charm out of Knott Mill
I was taking a French architectural critic around not long ago and he said: “I love your city, it is such a mess.” He meant that affectionately, entranced by the total absence of French style boulevards of consistent buildings, here he found every building was usually different from its neighbour, in both design and age.
Of course, out in the suburbs things change, with myriad similar ‘crescents’, ‘cul-de-sacs’ and ‘closes’, but UK city centres and their fringes display that healthy chaos of the market economy, where individuals build as they see fit within planning guidelines.
One such delightful pocket in Manchester is Knott Mill, between Whitworth Street West, the River Medlock, Deansgate and Medlock Street. Aside from the large dreary car park, on one side and the awful Ropeworks development on the eastern edge, the little tangle of streets here, offers a beguiling mix of old and new buildings.
On Little Peter Street there’s the handsome old Sunday school, now offices, but once The Boardwalk. The railway arches on Hewitt Street, partly under the marching girder columns of the extended railway track, host some fine businesses including Mancoco, a Manchester coffee classic. Castlefield Gallery is an asset, along with Tony Wilson’s fine original Manchester example of loft living in the building hosting a furniture company called Humanscale. There's Rob Gretton’s slate faced Factory Records office as well.
The Deansgate side is fascinating historically. Not many people know that the original line of the street is not the one over the Bridgewater Viaduct to Old Trafford. The original line slips under the railway bridge to the east of Atlas Bar and down to the eighteenth century bridge over the River Medlock, hidden behind high hoardings. A tunnel carrying the river is also hidden, which was part of the workings for the nearby Bridgewater Canal
This is an ancient route, close to the Roman ford over the river, and home to an Arthurian myth, in which a murderous giant called Tarquin was dispatched by Sir Lancelot.
Knott Mill is a quiet area and is all the better for that. It seems to be doing all right in a sleepy kind of way, with 118 businesses employing 600 people, and with 400 apartments too.
Now, it’s been given a new masterplan, drawn up by one of the design practices it hosts, SimpsonHaugh. The latter company already dominates the area. To the south there are the towers of Deansgate Square rising to 201m (659ft), and to the north, Beetham Tower at 169m (554ft). We might as well change the name of that part of the city to SimpsonHaughville.
The new plan envisages that at least another 124,000 sq ft of commercial space and 154 apartments might be delivered. The former would be made up of 77,000 sq ft of offices; 26,000 sq ft of retail, and 22,000 sq ft of hotel space, with brick as the dominant facing material. The river frontage would be opened up, and there would be a footbridge across to Deansgate Square. The physical fabric of 'old' Deansgate would be enhanced and traffic calmed.
All good, but an area called ‘the Fringe’, alongside the river, has been earmarked for ‘height’. This is not needed, anything over six to eight storeys would damage the intimate nature, certainly of the western side, of Knott Mill. The masterplan itself states: ‘Development in Knott Mill should reinforce the area’s own distinctive character, rather than seeking to emulate adjacent developments in nature and scale.’ To this end Confidential would rather there be no bars or retail, unless river facing, certainly not in the centre of the site. Maybe, a boutique hotel could be included, but keep it quiet, we say.
There was a masterplan in 1992 by Central Manchester Development Corporation, comprising of low buildings and green spaces. This remains a kinder more sympathetic document than the new plan, although it shows how frequently masterplans are bypassed. The lumpen mid-height apartment blocks which were developed on Little Peter Street and Jordan Street are absent from that 1992 document.
The 1992 masterplan also depicted a cute urban village on what is now the large surface car park alongside Little Peter Street. The new plan doesn’t include that significant part of Knott Mill in its remit. Why? Are there plans on desktop folders somewhere which will shatter the Knott Mill scale?
SimpsonHaugh's document states: ‘Without an overall strategic approach to the area, and a drive for high-quality design, piecemeal redevelopment would represent a significant missed opportunity in terms of reinforcing its existing characteristics and creating a more sustainable neighbourhood.’
Er, no, we say, piecemeal development is just fine here. Let’s sort the tatty roads and make something of the historically important Deansgate strip, let’s open up the river, that's all well and good. The addition of quality, low, preferably commercial buildings, in the empty plots of surface car parking is all that is needed. Let’s not masterplan the charm out of Knott Mill. Let the guiding thought be that of the aforementioned furniture business: human scale.