Adam Prince: Fighting for a better Village in Manchester

Vada Voices

by Adam Prince

With the announcement that the Origin site opposite G-A-Y is due to be redeveloped, an incredible 2,075 people have completed a survey for developers on what they hope to see in the Gay Village. This is arguably the most pivotal development site for the area, but developers are also planning Kampus at Aytoun to Minshull Street, and soon enough I am sure the Bloom Street carparks and the empty buildings around the Village will be developed too.

The future of an LGBT district is arguably at make-or-break time in the coming years. It’s a chance to improve or to merge into generic city obsolescence. Likewise the area could face danger and disintegration. In an area lacking infrastructure (or many businesses other than bars, takeaways and taxi ranks), I believe that the Village has lacked political vision ever since I moved here in 1997. Now the chance for inspiration could come in the most unlikely guise – as private developers promise to renew the area.

Those who have been keeping up will know that I drafted the survey for the Origins site. I hoped to do what is so rarely done by the paid professionals and political leaders of our city. That is, I wanted to involve the people the redevelopment would affect. I wanted to value their opinions in the hopes for a genuine consultation. (You can take the survey here and see the results so far here.)

The abandoned site on the edge of the Village was bought by Urban and Civic in December 2014 after the failure of the now bankrupt West properties’ Origin scheme from 2006-9. The demented glass and metal ice cubes on the site increased and slowly grew and grew in height until they became an eyesore that couldn’t be ignored. The civic spaces that were promised in the first designs gave way to plans for a hotel. Then everything went silent and the site sat empty.

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Being the most complained about city design in the Noughties, the Origins site, which ignored all the community wanted, would have been outdated and would have damaged the area. (You can see the original plans here.)

Sadly Urban and Civic seem set to use the 17-floor permission of Ian Simpson’s design, but the results of the survey make clear what people want. But it’s not all doom and gloom: negotiation, I believe, is possible and can be achieved. More and more stakeholders are becoming interested in the Origins site and see this as a strategic development location. People are prepared to work together to seek better outcomes.

The results of the survey show the greatest wish is for green civic space in and around the area. Many complain this is far too lacking in our city centre. Other important trends include a desire to see a design that is sympathetic to the aesthetic of the area, perhaps using reclaimed sculpture, and one that is not towering or which casts huge shadows across Canal Street and the residential properties nearby.

People hope the site will offer unique functions rather than generic supermarkets, chain retailers or offices. A high percentage of people requested support for an LGBT function that complements the Gay Village as it currently exists and as we hope it will become with future investment. There is a clear desire for opening up the canal frontage and enhancing arts and cultural representation, as well as the services so lacking in the area.

All responses have been sent to Urban and Civic, who will soon exhibit their design in consultations. While being realistic, we should also push for what is achievable. Simply: if you don’t ask, and you don’t dream, you won’t get.

The people of Manchester deserve to be more than careless recipients of planning. We moan when we get something we didn’t want, but few of us have got involved – until now. Making a Planning Objection is easier than people would have us believe – in fact, it’s completely accessible. It’s just not widely known where to go to do this. (To do so head to the Planning Portal, where the planning application for this site will soon go live.)

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origins plans

In my opinion, more and more people need to get involved in civic campaigning. As a city, Manchester risks repetitive, poor and bland designs that offer little to communities and will damn us forever as the second (or perhaps even third or fourth) city.

Last year I fundraised and organised the Molly House mural and ran a Gay Village arts trail on my own. Next year I hope to work with Superbia in a large arts initiative for the area – an area I feel has been politically neglected and deserves better support for emerging LGBT talent.

To me, the most important thing in planning is that people are genuinely respected by developers and that planners take more effort to represent the aspirations of the civic voice, retaining our heritage and seeking a truly sustainable future for neighbourhoods.

We must avoid the gentrification taking the soul out of our city. We need to be wary of London – a one-great city that faces the destruction of LGBT areas, while rich developers assault cultural history and destroy communities. In this area where the LGBT legacy cannot be ignored or devalued, I hope more people take time to actively speak up for their neighbourhood.

Too often developers and politicians don’t consider citizens in their decisions. Many times they see development as none of the public’s business. I have found people hurt by planning decisions they complained about too often become reluctant to ever fight again. Such defeats do not make the overall fight pointless, and though change is slow, people must stand up for what they believe in.

One of the things that spurred me on for civic campaigning was the utter travesty in seeing Legends and the birthplace of Northern Soul, Twisted Wheel, being demolished despite the widespread support to protect and keep them – especially because of the LGBT histories those venues represented until 2014.

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There was no political condemnation when this action finally went through and it seems little was learnt from this annihilation of cultural history that so readily swept away a huge chunk of our LGBT legacy. Now it is an abhorrent concrete block that even Milton Keynes would be ashamed of.

With neighbouring London Road Fire Station, I was told by experts, politicians and civic groups that to campaign was pointless. Now it looks set to be sold and I met with three bidders whose mixed use and civic access models were strongly influenced by our research and relentless campaigning. This is to highlight an achievement so many were told was not possible. Our campaign has had real impact in a 29-year case of destructive and delinquent ownership – and political failure.

Recently I was delighted to meet Capital and Centric, who are making the Kampus site, and found them to be very open, creative and ambitious. I’m excited for that development on Chorlton Street to Aytoun because it will expand the frontiers of the Gay Village in new and exciting ways.

We need to spur on developers to do better for the area, as well as to encourage a better Gay Village. It may be fashionable to criticise and rip apart the Village, and certainly there are venues that deserve criticism and political leaders who seem to have deprioritised or cynically underestimated the area, but only we can make things better.

The struggle will be uphill, but if we have dreams and aspirations for the area to endure, evolve and survive, we have to think long and hard about what we want for our city. Let’s challenge the attitude of some planners and developers that excludes communities from having a voice and kills the unique qualities that makes us different. That should not ever be good enough for Manchester – and I think Manchester’s LGBT community has finally had enough.

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