Founded by three former Stephenson Bell staff in 2012, Project3 has carved out a niche as one of Altrincham’s most prominent architects. Place North West sat down with the practice’s founders to talk good design, the Grafton Centre, and what Altrincham needs to build on its success.
Based on Back Grafton Street, the practice’s office sums up Altrincham’s recent resurgence. The new-build office sits next to landscape architect Planit-IE’s Northern headquarters on the cobbled street running between the Metrolink and Goose Green, one of the town’s leisure hubs, while garage and business units – along with Games Workshop – have all been converted into apartments.
It’s a microcosm of what’s happened in Altrincham, where the town has transformed from one of Britain’s “ghost towns” to be crowned the country’s best high street in the Great British High Street Awards just a couple of months ago.
Project3, founded by Andy Bamford, Rob Evans, and Craig Smith, has been at the forefront, having delivered a number of key projects since its foundation in 2012.
All three worked together at Stephenson Bell and founded Project3 when the practice split in 2012, choosing not to follow Roger Stephenson into his new venture backed by Ian Simpson Architects.
Since striking out the team has grown to 10, first based out of an office above the Cheshire Tap and now to Back Grafton Street. Part of the approach to growing the practice has been to look at these local surroundings to see between the lines, as Evans put it.
Filling in the gaps
“By analysing what’s wrong with a town, those little things that annoy you, and by living and working and wandering around here, you can identify opportunities,” he said.
Working locally, the practice saw the potential to masterplan the Regent Road area, currently undergoing a renaissance with schemes by Citybranch, Novo, and Calderpeel all coming forward.
While the team at Project3 is still heavily involved, there are still some regrets as to the way this particular site has been developed.
“We started doing a masterplan for Regent Road car park, and tried to get the council to look at it,” said Bamford.
“There are several landowners there with Trafford Council being the biggest as the owner of the car park; there’s Consensus which owned the bowling green, Trafford Housing Trust too. It would have been fantastic to masterplan that: we said it would end up being developed piecemeal which is exactly what’s happened.
“We’re now having to work outside our scope, getting this developer to talk to that developer, so in some ways, we’re doing [the masterplanning] role, but it could have been far better organised if it had been led by Trafford and delivered holistically. Unfortunately, they were not interested at all.”
Evans added: “We’ve highlighted some of the bad things that have been built in Altrincham: the Total Fitness, the Tesco, the Sainsburys, Clarendon House, the apartments opposite Wetherspoons. The town should be all about promoting good architecture”.
Smith said the practice’s approach has been to look at “gap sites” to improve the town centre with a vision of linking several “pocket parks” together, with Regent Road and Central Way becoming the focus.
The Grafton Centre
Plenty of opportunities still remain in Altrincham, with the new Everyman cinema and lower market on Central Way now improving the potential of this area, while Project3 is one of the parties to throw its hat into the ring for the role of development partner on the Grafton Centre, alongside Novo.
In what will be a fiercely-contested site, the Grafton Centre is the town’s most immediate redevelopment priority. Others to put themselves forward include AEW and Step Places; Bruntwood; Capital & Centric; SixTwo and RED Partnerships; Patrick Properties; and a joint venture between Quinta, View Associates, and Recom.
The site, purchased by Trafford Council last year, has long been in need of a refresh.
“We went for it as a local business to partner with a local developer, to present a design for the buildings which would respect the existing urban fabric,” said Bamford.
“Sometimes a project of that size brings in people that aren’t familiar with the fabric of Altrincham and would do something completely different, with the potential to end up with a big, ugly building slap-bang in the centre of Altrincham.”
Smith added: “You can’t afford to just wipe that site clean and start again, so we’ve looked at retaining the tower, which lends itself to a refurb, much in the same way that Urban Splash would do. If it’s knocked down as well, you might not get permission to put something up of that size.
“We have retained the tower and have proposed spending money on it to convert into apartments – strip everything away, keep the frame, re-glaze it all, sky gardens, balconies.”
Part of the design looks at unlocking the bottom end of Central Way for further development and a series of courtyards, one of which is proposed at Regent Road, ultimately linking to King’s Court.
“If you looked at that project from a purely commercial point of view you wouldn’t care how it engaged with the streets, like the Clarendon House application,” said Evans.
The proposals by developer Lunar for Clarendon House are evidently a bone of contention for the team at Project3. The current plans, supported by Trafford Council, are for an office-to-residential conversion that largely leaves the existing building opposite the transport interchange intact.
Project3, along with Novo and Planit-IE,put forward an alternative proposal which looks to open up the site by cutting through to the retail core at George Street and creating a new pedestrian route to the market.
However, the team said the council has still not looked to engage and is pushing on regardless, with the building now being marketed for development under its existing planning consent.
Evans criticised this as a “massive missed opportunity” which could support further development of the town centre, particularly around the ageing Rackham’s building.
“It’s in Trafford’s hands – they have the ability to say no because they’re the landlord. It already has planning consent but we thought we couldn’t let that happen without putting up a bit of a fight,” he said.
“The current proposal just isn’t interested in how that site impacts your arrival point into Altrincham. You should get off the tram, go straight through where Clarendon House, walk down past the shops on George Street on the way to the market,” adds Bamford.
“Clarendon House could be the catalyst for how the whole area around Rackham’s could redevelop in the future, and if the council just allow it to develop in the way that it’s going, there’s not much help for the surrounding area.
“If Altrincham’s bucking the trend for retail high streets and we want that momentum to carry on, you need people to walk through that part of town. It’s a lost opportunity if it doesn’t happen.”
Another of the town’s troubled projects, however, is singled out as an opportunity. The health and wellbeing centre – still sitting largely empty after a dispute with its original occupiers and Trafford’s Clinical Commissioning Group – is highlighted as one of the solutions to Altrincham’s next issue: a lack of offices.
“For me it’s about getting more commercial,” said Evans. “It’s established as a place people want to live, has great connections with the motorway and the tram – it should be a really good place for young entrepreneurs to come without having to trek into Manchester.”
There a precious few sites left for large-scale offices, although Oakfield Road is one area suggested that could house some significant development – along with Nikal’s Altair, which has been in the planning process for some time without a spade hitting the ground.
All these opportunities have the potential to add to a growing portfolio of work for the practice, which has now grown to 10 staff. This, the team said, is part of the retaining a “studio feel” at the office, as Bamford said: “We don’t want to be directors, we still want to be designers”.
The team is also expanding its geographical footprint and is now working on a comprehensive redevelopment of Stockport College along with housing in Macclesfield as part of the housing plans for the former King’s School site with Hillcrest Homes.
As it continues to grow and expand into larger project, the team is still focussing on what were originally its core projects of house extensions, which Smith said sums up the practice’s ethos: “everything is bespoke, and everything is contemporary, and we want to maintain that”.