Gay Times June 08 - Issue 357
End of an Era?
With a massive new development underway in the heart of Manchester’s Gay Village, GT asks, can the scene survive?
“It is the equivalent of dropping a straight bomb on the Gay Village,” says Nigel Martin-Smith. The former Take That manager is well known for his outspoken views, and he’s angry about three multi-storey glass towers currently being built in the heart of Manchester’s Gay Village.
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Martin-Smith, who owns Village institutions Essential and Queer, claims the developers behind the £100m Origin complex of apartments, retail units, offices and hotel have ruined the atmosphere and attitude that makes the Village unique.
“You have a run-down area, and it becomes better when the gays move in. But then the latté-drinking brigade and the suits arrive. Manchester Council is selling gay people down the river,” he stresses.
“They build these apartments, attracted by the funky area, and then get upset when they find out the area is full of gay people. What we really need is more footfall during the day. We don’t need more bars. The gay community now feels outnumbered. Until such time as gay people are genuinely accepted, we still need an area where we can be free. This will kill the Village off, no doubt.”
His reaction may seem slightly hysterical. The Canal Street quarter, arguably one of Europe’s gay capitals, survived the commercialism of the 90s with its independence intact, and many argue that this development will do little to dent the area’s brash confidence.
Most objectors say they would have welcomed a sympathetic new development on the site of the former derelict car park, but they have been angered by the size of Origin.
The tallest 16-storey tower (reduced from 25 storeys) will contain 180 ‘state-of-the-art’ apartments, and will be flanked by a seven-storey office block and a 13-storey boutique hotel building, all built in a conservation area of six-storey Victorian offices and workshops.
When the planning application was first lodged on November 14th, 2006, there were 267 official objections. But after a bitter battle between Save Our Village campaigners, developers West Properties and Manchester City Council, Origin was given the go-ahead on March 27th, 2007.
Save Our Village campaigner Chris Speck, who lives in the nearby Velvet House, says Origin is “horrendous.”
“It will drown out the beautiful buildings that surround it. It will put Canal Street in the shade and make it dark and gloomy. It should never have been allowed. It’ll swamp the area, and there will be traffic chaos.
“It will only appeal to naïve non-Mancunians. I’m sure people with money won’t want to live there when they realise that the area is a bit gritty. It’s not plush and crime-free – and this development won’t change that. They’re trying to turn the whole area into a monopoly. It will ruin that end of Canal Street.”
But despite the howls of protest, progress on the 0.51-hectare site is going well, with the completion date pencilled in for mid-2010.
The site is surrounded by large hoardings plastered with images of attractive young people – a marketing strategy Speck brands as “pretentious nonsense.”
But West Properties planning director Francis Hilton maintains Origin’s futuristic design and aspirational values will compliment the area’s heritage and culture. “When we started this process, we looked at five different architects plans. This scheme was the one that represented the cutting edge of 21st-century building. Why can’t we have buildings of several different periods sitting together?
“I don’t think we should preserve everything in aspic. We should be able to have modern developments built with the modern techniques and materials available to us. The last thing we wanted to do is build a bland brick development. It’s all about quality. It will not be the same as some of the other, perhaps poorer-quality schemes that have gone up in Manchester.”
He says West Properties will make a decision about retailers in 2009, but confirms that efforts will be made to attract independent businesses. He adds that any estimates of how much West Properties stands to make from the development are “commercially sensitive.”
Canal Street’s dark warehouses were taken over by entrepreneurs in the 1980s, with places like Manto kick-starting the transformation of the area into one of Manchester’s most thriving cultural quarters. But the Village – particularly the area near Origin - has subsequently suffered from the overspill of the beery, leery binge-drinking culture encouraged by the cheap drink deals on offer at nearby chain pubs.
According to Phil Burke of the Village Business Association, the Origin site had become a hot spot for male and female prostitution, drug abuse, crime and homophobic assaults. Policing initiatives have resulted in a 30% drop in crime, but Burke says Canal Street still needed Origin.
“The Council has done as much as it can. The area needs private investment. We have really seen it decline over the last couple of years, and we all agree that this development is much needed. If it weren’t for West Properties coming in here, we would lose a lot of the people who come into Canal Street.”
Hilton adds that Origin is set to create 300-500 jobs, boosting the local economy in an area of high unemployment.
Taurus bar co-owner Iain Scott believes West Properties will actually support Canal Street’s independent businesses by protecting the area against the rampant corporatisation that has threatened it in the past.
“Independence is making a partnership with industry, and that will give us the freedom to make strategic decisions about the area. That has got to be a good thing. The idea that people are making decisions about the Village in offices in the south-east of England is ludicrous. But this development is quality, and that is what it’s about, at the end of the day.”
Yet according to openly-gay city centre ward Councillor Marc Ramsbottom, Origin is far from the right development. “People who think it will be some kind of messianic rebirth are just talking nonsense. That doesn’t come from a building. What created the Village were the people in it. The Council doesn't do enough to preserve these areas and ensure there’s proper development. These companies just run riot through the city.
“There is increased commercialisation in the area, and that’s a great pity. This development doesn’t do anything to lift Canal Street in the right direction.”
Eamonn Boylan, deputy chief executive of Manchester City Council, points out that both English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) were happy to give Origin the green light, subject to some superficial changes.
"Although the development is uncompromisingly modern, this approach of introducing a modern building into a historic environment has worked successfully elsewhere in Manchester and around the country,” Boylan adds.
The development was subject to consultation with over 1000 residents, while the Council says that several packed meetings gave objectors enough opportunity to air their grievances.
Meanwhile, West Properties claims its commitment towards the future of the area is proved by its three-year sponsorship of the annual Pride festival.
“We have to be responsible,” Hilton says. "We’re actually looking at setting up some form of partnership with the Lesbian and Gay Foundation. It’s all about working hand in hand.”
But while bar owners like Scott are pragmatic about West Properties’ contributions, Cllr Ramsbottom accuses it of “buying favouritism with business” – and neither West Properties nor the Pride organisation would release precise figures on the sponsorship deal.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pride festival manager Jackie Crozier thinks Origin “will see more people living and working in the heart of gay Manchester.”
But disillusioned younger members of Manchester’s LGBT community feel they no longer have a stake in the Village. Sam Rowe, 21, was one of the hundreds of objectors. “There are so many more needs for the space, like a drugs service, or a service for trans people,” she says. “The Village used to be a place of radicalism and activism, a place where people didn’t need to look or act a certain way. They’re excluding the majority of LGBT people.”
Her friend Tomboi agrees: “The developers are trying to push a very rigid definition of what it is to be LGBT – a trendy, hip, corporate image. For me, it’s not a queer space at all. It’s no different from any other street in Manchester.”
Words Helen Clifton