Jonathan Schofield looks at plans which would mean a huge change for Deansgate
The death bell has finally rung for Kendals/House of Fraser, two years after it first appeared likely to close. The department store has now been definitively declared redundant.
In new proposals the fine 1939 Modernist building on Deansgate will sprout a heavy hat of extensions and become offices with a marginal element of retail on the ground floor.
Meanwhile the crass seventies multi-storey car park to the rear will be demolished. This is no loss as it is truly hideous. NCP shares may take a hit as it costs about £100 an hour to park your ugly 4X4 there - or something like that. This structure will be replaced by a very large commercial building.
There is no evidence of future demand for a department store of this scale
Investec, the landowners, and their lead architects Sheppard Robson, have put their heads together and come up with some radical plans which look sound. They want Mancunians and other interested parties to comment. Two elements will prove controversial, one because of conservation considerations and another due to scale.
The core thinking behind the new ideas is summed up this paragraph from the proposal document. ‘Uncertainty in the retail market and changes in consumer behaviour represent an inevitable threat to the Kendals building in its current form (housing House of Fraser). With no evidence of future demand for a department store of this scale, there is a critical need to establish a sustainable long-term strategy for the site that can protect and future proof the listed building.’
The conclusion drawn comes in this passage. ‘Following an extensive testing process, ‘office use’ was found to be the most suitable option for the site – striking the ideal balance between future viability and the least intervention to the fabric of the listed building. Manchester city centre is seeing sustained demand for new Grade A office space in prime locations, and once redeveloped, the site is anticipated to support almost 4,000 jobs.’ Really, that many? By the way there will be a total of 500,000 sq ft of commercial space in the proposals.
Given the reluctance of companies to get their office staff back to work in these Covid-19 times the logic behind the plans might seem almost as shaky as the future of retail in the epoch of Amazon. Let's hope this is not the case.
What we can all enjoy about these plans is the way the public realm is to be improved. Where paving presently wobbles and splashes mucky rainwater up legs there will be a tidy and neat bit of landscaping. This fits in with the whole uplift in the area envisaged by the latest plans in the St Mary’s Parsonage Strategic Regeneration Framework.
There will be sadness of course about the end of the Kendals/House of Fraser which began as The Bazaar in 1836 over the road on the Waterstones site. More to the point jobs will be lost and that’s a terrible thing to happen to anybody in uncertain times.
Inevitably there will be a bout of nostalgia as these plans become well known. As we've written before with a suitable caveat, 'people of older age will fondly recall in-store events that included pageants, food fandangos, high-glam catwalks and extravagant Christmas celebrations. A store that hosts such memories is special, but there has not been much of the special about House of Fraser/Kendal’s latterly. There has been little evidence of flair for the spectacular, there have been few events. The opening of Cicchetti was a smart move but House of Fraser, as it declined, was in no position to make the store stand out as an exceptional shopping experience, aside from its heritage and its superb JW Beaumont designed building.'
So what are the parts that will prove controversial?
The proposed new 12-storey building, where the multi-storey car park sits, will be very large and at least twice as tall as the current monstrosity, maybe more. There are a lot of residents along St Mary’s Parsonage and they may not be too happy about the heft and bulk of this glass clad office block despite its design featuring ‘glazing and solid panels that form a vertical zig-zag façade – a design that nods towards the windows featured on Kendals, while also creating something entirely original’.
On the other hand, there can be little doubt the plans are an improvement to the nothing street that is Southgate Street. As Century Building resident Howard Sharrock says, “We seem to be gaining more than we are losing especially with the public realm.”
The other controversial element in these visualisations is all about conservation, heritage and design. The lumpen bronze and grey extensions on the top of the department store look horribly out of keeping with the clean verticals of the original building. In fact from street level, looking from say St Ann’s Street, they will ruin the purity of the 1939 design, shattering its proportions; as weird as placing a couple of bricks on a supermodel’s head.
Given the scale of the proposed new office building is this extension really necessary? Is more commercial space really needed when the original listed building will suffer such distortion?
Investec think so. ‘Due to the significant costs involved in the refurbishment of the building, to protect and future proof its unique heritage, a new rooftop extension is required to enable enough office space to make the entire project financially viable. The design of the extension will be striking and contemporary. It uses high quality, bold materials to evolve and complement the existing building.’
This sounds almost apologetic. If the design of these extensions isn’t altered, lightened, or discarded then we’ll only have the magnificent Express Building in the city centre to remind us of an exciting period in architecture. Fortunately in the recent refurbishment of that building it was not deemed necessary to mess with the sharp-as-a-pin exterior.
That said, this area of the city centre is ripe for a developmental boost. King Street West and Southgate Street should blossom and if distinctive and interesting retail can be introduced on the ground floor of Kendals/House of Fraser then street level activity will be maintained.
What is clear is that Manchester city centre’s continuing transformation shows few signs of slowing.