CONFIDENTIAL has been critical of Piccadilly Gardens for a decade now, not only on these pages, but during countless meetings with councillors, business leaders and the public.
Dig up the grass and pave the lot...
Now it seems change - not piecemeal sticking-plaster change, or ‘setting up a taskforce’ change – but actual change is coming to Manchester’s most lambasted landmark.
Landowners Legal & General – in partnership with Manchester City Council - have unveiled plans for a £10 million Piccadilly Gardens makeover; including the removal of Tadao Ando’s infamous concrete wall, an increase in green areas and the construction of two new pavilion buildings containing ‘family restaurants and a new coffee outlet’ by 2019.
The perennially broken fountain, however, will remain, as will the playground.
The construction of the new pavilion buildings will increase L&G’s lease area, after the insurance and investment firm bought the 250-year lease on the adjacent One Piccadilly Gardens building - including the wall and pavilion - for £75 million in 2014 from Europa Holdings.
In short, the council is allowing L&G to extend their stake in Piccadilly Gardens in return for funding the revamp. L&G admit that without this lease area increase ‘the scheme would not be viable’.
Exactly how the council was allowed to sell a 250-year lease on land donated to the public by the Mosley family remains unclear (Confidential has contacted the council for clarification), but what is clear is that the sale of this lease in the late-nineties has hindered any desire in recent years to just demolish the lot and start again.
The proposed and long overdue beautification of Manchester's largest public space includes an increase in lawn space, more ornamental plants and the introduction of ‘fibre reinforced grass’ to improve durability and avoid the bogs that have plagued the ‘gardens’.
But is more green really the answer? Months down the line will the bogs and frayed edges not be back? Will the pigeons not again scoff the new seed? Will the flower beds and tree grilles not become litter dumps? Most importantly, will the council not keep pumping money into maintaining the green bits and fixing that sodding fountain every six months or so?
So what is the solution? Well, Confidential has been arguing this one for some time…
Get rid of the green and hard surface the lot.
As editor-at-large Jonathan Schofield wrote in 2014: ‘Piccadilly Gardens is an oxymoron, a misnomer, a mangled mishmash of a historical error compounded and continued by a sentimental attachment to an unintended hundred year old mistake’.
Once the Manchester Royal Infirmary had moved to its present Oxford Road Site in 1908, and plans for a new art gallery were scuppered, the gardens – used as allotments during World War Two – became a stop-gap.
And despite misty-eyed nostalgia for the perfectly-groomed lawns, glorious flower beds and picnicking families of the fifties and sixties, by the seventies the sunken gardens had become a magnet – much like today - for ne’er do wells and inebriation.
So is it not time that Manchester, as is its way, act boldly?
Drop the 'gardens' completely and change the name to Piccadilly Square, while looking to the grand open squares of Europe – such as the Grand Place in Brussels or the Rynek Glowny in Krakow – for inspiration.
Dig up the grass and pave the lot, remove the wall and all other unnecessary obstacles, open up the space and drive out the criminality that has made Piccadilly Gardens a byword for all that is dreary, threatening and rank in the city centre.
Install a better fountain (one that works), more benches and interesting lamp posts, throw down some cobbles, retain a few trees (perhaps around the perimeter) and shine-up Queen Victoria, Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington.
Keep the pavilion, if you must, but make it a feature, not a barrier, and please don’t let the ‘family restaurants and coffee outlet’ mean a Zizzi and Costa.
Now suddenly the city’s largest public space becomes not an area of civic embarrassment but one of pride; a blank canvas for events, concerts, parades and, dare we say it, Christmas Markets (because we'd all like to see more of that).
New numbers released this week by L&G reveal that Piccadilly Gardens now experiences an annual footfall of around sixteen million people. Sixteen million people. And one thing's for sure, as the city's population grows and the council's budget dwindles, the cost of maintaining those greens bits isn't going to get any cheaper.