Urban&Civic’s vision for the Village – a better way of listening?

Vada Voices

by Adam Prince

On Friday, Civic&Urban unveiled its plans for the old Origins site on the edge of Manchester’s Gay Village.

So the good news: it is better overall than the previous Origin design but is built by the same architect on its foundations. That bad legacy it left remains and is the get-out clause for the developer.

The designs are hulking and bulking, but the existing planning permission is there so new plans were always likely to be of similar proportions. It is not stepped back from the canal and there is a much greater need for contrasts in materials, but as a starting point it could be much worse.

It would be good to see green balconies and make the building vibrant and camouflaged. There is a civic space, places to hide from the rain and balconies in the hotel at summer – but they are in short supply.

Past the delirium of the marketeers, the designs exhibited for two days at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Manchester were sparse but well-presented and reasonably clear. You can still see all the details online and this is where to provide your feedback. It is vital we do so.

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We do not need the old Origin plan back like an ugly alien without true civic spaces or balconies, staring us down in cold glass and steel. We must not go back to the most complained design of the Noughties.

Just going back two years, in 2013 a city centre spokesperson gave the Gay Village five years to change or, he said, it would sound its deathknell. Unlike the many leaders I have emailed, Urban&Civic actually cared to respond, which I believe is a good first step for public engagement. Sometimes I believe Town Hall is unimaginative in its response to everyday citizens and sees them as a nuisance not to bother with, unless for a photo opportunity. Hopefully Urban&Civic’s position is different and this is a genuine consultation.

Gladly I see the undue pessimism about the Gay Village area is becoming outmoded. People believe that they can achieve better things in the area rather than disparaging it and giving up on it. Even corporations say they now want to help the area and to respect it, and for once, I believe them. This design is not the be-all and end-all for the Village, but it could help the area or hurt it. I think it helps far more than it might.

The developer bought the site with permission for a hulking 17-storey hotel building overlooking Canal Street. The revised Urban&Civic plans are for an apartment block to a similar height, but at least the top 3 floors are stepped back a bit so it is a little less imposing, and the building materials allow it to blend in among its neighbours a lot more. But it is still huge and will cast a large shadow over Canal Street.

It is good to hear there is a model that will allow new businesses to come in with more affordable lets in retail units, which the previous design did not have. A smarter suggestion may be an elusive LGBT museum and exhibition centre for Manchester. People far more connected and savvy than I am in the LGBT community are meeting with Urban&Civic at the Village action group committee to discuss and pioneer models for the area and to see if some of the ground floor units can offer something permanent for the community.

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I was also delighted to see the LGBT function mentioned on the feedback survey. This is a small victory that I do not believe would be being considered without the 2150 responses we received on the survey. West’s Origin was office armageddon, advertising to heterosexual professionals. We do not need that back ever.

We all know that in this city, in terms of planning, decisions are often not made in collaboration with the civic voice so this could have been far worse. (I was trying not to mention Motel One where Legends used to be, but I just have.) Too often it seems that Manchester City Council is not pioneering a smart way to allow people to have an apolitical voice, or to offer feedback, when it comes to planning or locals’ hopes and dreams for their city.

The Urban&Civic plans are yet another Ian Simpson design, as he seems to get all the key jobs in Manchester, which means the vision for the city’s future is largely shaped by one man. But at least his plans this time around seem less alien to this conservation area location. It’s certainly not nearly as exciting or as vibrant as Kampus by Capital and Centric at Aytoun Street, but it is a contrast that offers a variety of new development in the area. It does add a more professional feel and the well sited four-star hotel surely will be advantageous for the area. Yes, it needs to reduce its bulk and step back further from the Canal, but it’s better than the previous design. If Urban&Civic care, they will perhaps listen to this one last – and possibly most important – request.

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It is good to hear Urban&Civic talk about attracting new small businesses to come in with affordable lets in the retail units. The Village is an established and important LGBT neighbourhood, but better cafés and restaurants should do well unless those arts uses, galleries and museums can be realised at last (and latter spaces are something the community seems particularly thirsty for).

Overall I am impressed with Urban&Civic, given that their plans actually engaging with the public’s responses. In the last two years, I have campaigned against some really arrogant developers and operators on a number of issues regarding the city centre, but that is another story and a very long one. Urban&Civic have been a breath of fresh air in comparison.

Please give your feedback or forever hold your peace! The platform is there and Urban&Civic say they are listening. At least they are caring to respond to the LGBT community and seem to see it as an integral part of the area – unlike the previous plans, which seemed to disregard the community. Let’s hope for better now and let’s all do our bit to engage with developers such as Urban&Civic to help achieve better for our Village and our community.

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