“It is right and perfectly legitimate that we have the debate about whether the buildings at St Michael’s are of sufficient quality to justify the scale, and any disbenefits on the view or impact on surrounding heritage buildings,” stressed Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council.
In an interview with Place North West on the first day of the MIPIM conference in Cannes, Bernstein was firm that “the jury’s still out” on whether the two towers proposed by Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs’ development company at historic Jackson’s Row and Bootle Street near the Town Hall were appropriate.
Bernstein defended the need for buildings of height at the plot, but was insistent that the debate should be kept around the issue of design.
“It’s very easy to focus on just ‘two big buildings’. But you need to understand the essence of St Michael’s, we have an opportunity to demonstrate the market for high net worth housing, which I think is going to become very important for the future of the city centre.
“But the question is, is the development of sufficient quality to justify any disbenefits that someone might get looking at the building from St Ann’s Square, or Deansgate, and I think that’s where the debate should be held, and we’ve got to make a determination about that. We need to understand the rationale for those buildings as part of the growth of the city centre, then ask ourselves ‘is that building of sufficient quality?’
“That set of issues is very real, and we’ve got to allow our planning department to make the right judgment based on the right advice, and at the moment I think the jury’s still out. It might well be our planning officers conclude the buildings aren’t right.
“You need to weigh the benefits against the disbenefits of any scheme, and where St Michael’s is concerned, that analysis is not yet complete. Whatever decision the planning committee reaches, as long as it is objective and evidentially based, will be supported by me.”
Momentum has been gathering against the project, designed by Make Architects. The two bronze-clad buildings proposed at St Michael’s reach 21-storeys and 31-storeys, and have been criticised for being too tall for the city centre site, interrupting views across the city of key civic buildings. A planning application for the project has been submitted, which includes artist’s impressions of the towers looming over Central Library and the Town Hall.
When asked for his view on whether that view would be damaging for the city centre, Bernstein said: “Look at the Tower of London, with the Gherkin behind it, you wouldn’t say that’s outrageous. The Gherkin is a wonderful building, and the juxtaposition between old and new is what successful cities have managed to do in the past.
“It’s right and perfectly legitimate we have a debate about whether the buildings being put in St Michael’s are of a high enough quality to be able to justify that scale. But let’s not have the debate that we shouldn’t have buildings of scale because somehow they distort the view of the Town Hall or Central Library.”
With the “high end” target audience for the apartments and five-star hotel proposed at St Michael’s, is there a risk that a scheme is created that excludes many Manchester residents?
“We need all types of housing, which we are delivering in the spatial framework. Of course we need more social housing, but we also need places where high net-worth people want to live, as that’s key to how you attract talent and skills into the city.
“The notion that the alternative to St Michael’s is a high rise social housing development, clearly is nonsensical.”