Mixed-use. Community. Environment. Brownfield. Clay parrots. Manchester’s Northern Quarter is set to turn Lord Rogers’ taskforce report into colourful commercial reality.
Clay parrots perched on window sills in Manchester’s run-down former market district are the first sign that the area is about to undergo a massive overhaul. The parrots are part of an urban art project that aims to bring a dash of colour to an area that died with the arrival of the Arndale Centre. The parrots represent the district’s once-thriving trade in exotic birds.

The small touches are now being complemented by plans to return the district, now known as the Northern Quarter, to its former bustling state. Like Brick Lane and Shoreditch in east London, the area has already seen the establishment of small creative businesses that cannot afford city-centre rents. Now an Amec Developments and Crosby Group joint venture, named Ician, is to regenerate a former fish market in a £50m, 2.5 ha project.

The scheme will be the prototype for similar schemes planned by Ician in the north of England and Midlands. It may also become a prototype of the kind of development the Rogers taskforce called for. Although they evolved separately, the Northern Quarter development ticks off all the main items on the report’s wishlist: it will be mixed-use, brownfield and ecologically correct. Perhaps more importantly, if it succeeds in generating an aura of bohemian glamour and economic success, it will market the Rogers model to developers and planners across the country.

The man behind Ician is Amec Developments director Chris Brown. The thrust of the project is to use brownfield land in a sustainable way, and to combine retail and office space with flats and loft apartments, rather than building a massive shopping centre or office block. “The industry finds that difficult to do,” says Brown. “If we could learn how to do it, we’d have an advantage.”

Ician’s learning curve began with the designers. Brown assembled a band of architects to cope with the diversity of the scheme. Chapman Robinson, Hodder Associates, MBLC, Sagar Stevenson, Stephenson Bell and Urbed are working with masterplanner Building Design Partnership. “They are all young, they know each other and have grown up together,” says Brown. Each of the architects has its own section of the site to design, but they meet regularly to share ideas and offer suggestions.

Plans for the area aim to incorporate its trading history but also to take it forward. The giant facade of the old fish market will be retained when a new market hall is built, which Brown wants to fill with a variety of daily markets. Another impressive old market hall at the far corner of the site will be repaired and used either as a theatre space or a nursery.

Brown is a firm believer in full-blooded mixed-use development. He plans to have several buildings with shops on the ground floor, offices above and a mix of flats and loft-style apartments on the top floors. He is also negotiating with a major hotel firm to build a large hotel on one corner of the site. The first phase of small shops, office space and flats gets under way early next year. Plans for this site include a gallery connected to an existing craft museum. Brown hopes to complete the whole development in three to five years depending on how quickly the spaces are let.

The construction process itself aims to be sustainable, although Brown qualifies this by saying that it will be sustainable as far as is economic for Ician. He is a great admirer of the Peabody Trust, whose prefabricated housing project at Murray Grove in Hackney, east London, is one model for what he wants Ician to achieve. He plans to emulate the housing association, albeit on a larger scale.

The procurement strategy is also innovative. Although the first phase will start with a main contractor, Brown eventually aims to use just subcontractors. “We will start with a contract that people will recognise but we hope to move on from that,” he says. And of course, partnering arrangements will be de rigueur.

Many residential plans pander to the desires of car users, but this scheme hopes to provide fewer than one car space per unit. To compensate, Brown has ensured that there is sufficient public transport to service the area and is negotiating with a car hire firm to provide a car pool. “If you want to go 20 miles down the road, you could use an electric car, say, or if you want to move house, you could hire a van,” he explains. So far, the idea looks to be economical – unlike an earlier grey water scheme.

However, there is no point in introducing such innovations if they do not have the support of the local community. Brown and his team of architects have held a number of consultations with local residents. Once the properties go up for sale, he plans to set up a web site through which purchasers will be able to choose their flat and even the layout of the rooms. “Somebody interested in a loft, for example, might not want any [internal] walls. They will be able to plan that on screen.”

Perhaps none of what Brown is trying to achieve in the Northern Quarter is new – the innovation lies in the ambitious scale. And if it demonstrates that this new breed of urban design is workable, other such projects will spring up over the country. Brown believes a combination of a new culture of urban design and market forces will drive this. He says: “Local authorities will be more and more demanding on sustainability and we need to be ahead.”

Ician’s blueprint for urban renewal

  • Mixed-use developments incorporating retail, commercial and residential
  • Mix of social and private housing
  • Reduced car parking
  • A car pool service with a selection of different vehicles for different uses
  • Interactive web site for purchasers to decide on the rough layout of property
  • Off-site assembly and use of modular buildings
  • Use of local labour