Neville: St Michael’s challenge still in front of us

The evolution of the proposals for the mixed-use St Michael’s rumbles on, with the latest round of consultation into the revised designs due next week. As more details are set to emerge, developer Gary Neville talks to Place North West about high-end residential, hospitality, and homelessness.

Neville and fellow ex-footballer Ryan Giggs’ development company is behind the controversial Bootle Street scheme, backed by Singaporean investors and set to be built by Beijing Construction Group. After uproar surrounding the first iteration of the project, which proposed two dark bronze-clad towers looming over Albert Square, demolishing all historic buildings on site, a new version of the scheme was revealed last month; one 30-storey tower, and keeping the Bootle Street police station and Sir Ralph Abercromby pub. Previous architect Make has been replaced by Manchester favourite Hodder + Partners.

Neville was tightlipped on what could be expected from the more detailed St Michael’s design, preferring to wait until the public consultation due to take place next week.

However, through all the variations in the plans, Neville has been consistent on one point; his belief in the need for the site to deliver luxury residential accommodation, and potentially a five-star hotel.

Why have you stuck to your guns about the need for high-end residential at St Michael’s?

The central location demands it. The city doesn’t have the array of five star hotels; it doesn’t have an array of real high quality hotels, unlike Prague, Berlin, Barcelona or Munich.

Twenty years ago, there weren’t many people living in the city at all and now it’s completely changing, and with that service levels need to improve. I personally can’t differentiate between a residential development and a hotel; I cannot differentiate it at all. People who live in an apartment in the city must, in my mind, have access to high-quality service, whether that’s cleaning, whether that’s security, whether that’s concierge, or the choice to have nothing.

With both hospitality and residential with St Michael’s, we really do want to try and link the services together. It successfully happens in major cities around the world, and I do class Manchester as being a major city. I accept also the other challenges at the other end of the scale around homelessness and affordable housing but, on this particular site, it has to be pushed towards the high-end residential, high-quality service, a high-quality hotel.

Is there a risk of developing an upper class enclave, with no link into the city?

There is no doubt on this particular site the way to maximise profit would have been to go only for a hotel and as much residential as possible. However, we’ve decided that we definitely want a mixed-use scheme and we’ve put 140,000 sq ft of offices in there, purely to create a space which means there are thousands of people walking down those streets every day, rather than creating something which feels dead. On top of that, we are looking at about 40,000 sq ft of food and beverage and leisure. We’ve got great plans for the roof of the office building which, again, will hope to drive people through those streets, and connectivity is important for us.

Are you hoping to tap into the Spinningfields crowd?

I would hate to be so exclusive in respect of the public spaces.  So, for instance, the Abercromby pub; I would like to think people who use the pub now are the same people who will use the pub in the future so, from that point of view, no, we’re not just targeting a Spinningfields crowd. I’d like to think that we’re going to create a destination for all people to use.

You have previous experience of trying to tackle Manchester’s homelessness problem by opening the empty Stock Exchange building as a shelter for six months in 2015. What drove you to take matters into your own hands?

I had a frustration, a frustration I probably share with thousands of people in the city, since I first lived in the centre with my wife when I was 26. I’ve always felt that it’s wrong, it’s just fundamentally wrong, that we have a situation whereby people end up on the streets.

However, the issue is complex, really complex, and I learned that with the Stock Exchange project. It isn’t simple; it’s OK for people to commentate on this problem, but don’t commentate on it without having a real understanding of it, because you will make mistakes. For people who at the snobby end who say: “Oh, they want to be on there,” you’re wrong, and for people on the other end who say: “It’s all the council’s fault,” you’re wrong too. It is really complex.

I don’t feel embarrassed talking about high-quality, high-end residential because I don’t feel embarrassed talking about homelessness either. We have to deal with both as a city, both of them are gaps and they need dealing with.

What would you like to see more of in Manchester?

In a perfect world, I’d love an amazing green space. It’s not going to happen but it would be great to have an amazing park or green space, a big one which weaves through the city. I’m thinking about the river bed in Valencia, it’s absolutely out of this world. In London, I go running round Hyde Park and think: “Whoa, if this was in Manchester now, wow.” You’d just transform the whole city from being somewhere where families potentially are a little bit nervous about living, to somewhere where actually we’ve got our green space so that’s one challenge.

St Michaels Steps January 2017

CGI of public realm previously proposed in St Michael’s, including ‘Spanish Steps’, which received criticism for a lack of connectivity through to Albert Square

Public realm was particularly dominant in the previous St Michael’s design. Is that something that’s been hard to let go?

The scheme that we’re presenting now is more liked, and is more popular. It’s something that people are finding a lot easier to live with and that’s important. Ultimately, we try to stretch the boundaries; we tried to take that scheme into a place which was bold, and it didn’t succeed, so you have to dust yourself off and come again, to try to put something forward that is acceptable.

You cannot just drive a bus through people continuously when the opposition position was so strong. We’re in a far better place now; it’s a lot calmer. The noise is settling and the reality of it is that we’ve engaged a lot more, we’ve consulted as early as possible and we believe we’re trying to do the right thing by still having our original ambition; to deliver a world class development. That’s the challenge still for us in the next few weeks; to make sure that it is as good as it possibly can be.

What’s your target for the rest of 2017?

The goal for 2017 is to work through the next consultation, and get St Michael’s to a planning committee; that is the real ambition for what is in front of us, the only ambition. You can talk about hotel operators, you can talk about residential sales, you can talk about commercial buildings and F&B outlets but, the reality is, without planning permission, we’re never going to be able to do anything. We’re concentrating everything on the consultation and the design, ensuring that we go through the process correctly, and hopefully getting it to a planning committee this year. The real challenge is in front of us.

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