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Placemaking In Manchester Must Embrace Failure Because That's How You Succeed

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Sometimes the winner is the one least afraid of losing. Sometimes the loser comes out on top.

In the game of placemaking, just as in the game of life, knowing that everything will not go your way is the path to wisdom.

With placemaking failures like Piccadilly Gardens, and missed opportunities in Hulme and Castlefield, can Manchester real estate learn to love a letdown?

Placemaking In Manchester Must Embrace Failure Because That's How You Succeed
Chef/Patron Simon Shaw, Savills Planning Director Jeremy Hinds, Bruntwood Head of Retail Leasing Andrea George and Hermes IM Executive Director Ben Sanderson at the Manchester State of the Market event, 27 March 2019

The property industry likes to talk things up. Boosters win friends, whilst skeptics get treated with suspicion because of the inherent optimism of an industry that plans projects that will take years to come to fruition.

And yet the truth is that often, everything isn't OK. Office blocks go unlet because they are awful and in the wrong place and nobody stopped to consider what the economy was doing, or how it was changing. Shops and restaurants endure a series of increasingly tatty short-term occupants because nobody really needed them, and they're in a dark grey wind-tunnel which is less public realm, more public toilet. Chic apartment blocks quickly turn into Airbnb hellholes because .... you know the answer already. Failure is everywhere.

Failure haunted the discussion on 'Creating A Sense of Place' at the Manchester Bisnow State of the Market event hosted last week at U+I's 24-acre Mayfield development. Only this time the undercurrent was that failure might just be worth embracing. Why? Because it is the price of success.

A specialist in making retail work in challenging circumstances, a long-term London investor, a chef-patron whose restaurants help make places and a planning expert each showed how missing the target could be the smartest business move you can make.

Manchester Mayfield is a former railway station located on the south side of Fairfield Street, opposite Manchester Piccadilly station.
The derelict Mayfield station site, Fairfield Street, soon to be revived by U+I

Without a sense of place, purpose and meaning for the people who use it, no property development on any scale can survive. For some investors, the long process of placemaking might seem like a costly albatross, but for Hermes Investment Management Executive Director (and Greater Mancunion) Ben Sanderson, it is essential.

"We're looking for things that are authentic, and long-term capital can see through the barriers to find that," Sanderson said, pointing to the creation and, equally important, destruction of value in the property sector. You can't have one without the other.

"Sometimes there is short-term pain for long-term gain in a new area. It takes time to find the destination creators and there is always the risk that what creates a destination today will not work tomorrow."

Andrea George, Bruntwood's head of retail and leisure leasing, was also looking out for failure, in her case in new retail and leisure businesses. "There is no secret ingredient to placemaking. It's all about allowing retailers to trial new locations, to succeed — or to fail fast," George said.

George explained that Bruntwood patiently woo retail and leisure occupiers who will enhance their placemaking vision for a location. This means putting traditional property preoccupations to one side until the moment is right. "The deal is not frontloaded, in fact the deal is the bit that drops in at the back end of the process," George said.

Manchester State of Market event 27 March 2019
Jeremy Hinds, Andrea George and Ben Sanderson in conversation

Even having an inspiring vision for a new destination will not result in successful placemaking if that vision is not shared, as both El Gato Negro Chef/Patron Simon Shaw and Savills National Planning Director Jeremy Hinds pointed out. Without buy-in, all efforts at placemaking are doomed.

"Vision is very important, but it's a two-way thing," Shaw said. "If other parties have a different vision then it won't deliver. When we first decided to operate in Manchester options were limited and we struggled, we looked for six months but couldn't find anywhere, and we only want to work with some people because we have a vision, too. If we are operating with someone who doesn't share [our] vision it halts everything, it stops us in our tracks."

Shaw appealed to property to "leave a little bit of room for independent retailers" with visions of their own.

And what of the locals, the people whose world is being remade by the property business?

"Having good-quality, high-end city centre occupiers is great, but how can we get the kids from Rochdale, Salford, Oldham to come into city centre Manchester?" Savills' Hinds asked. "If Manchester is going to succeed, then it has to offer a future to people born here, and come here, creating not just a sense of expectation but a sense that they can achieve what they want to do."

Hermes' Sanderson picked up the same theme. "The challenge is to make towns and cities work for everybody, not just a small group," he said. "At places like King's Cross some social cleansing has gone on which I'm frankly uncomfortable about.

"We have to understand the social impact of capital investment, and to embrace things like social housing and public realm, because otherwise placemaking might work in the short-term but won't in the long-term. It's not good enough to put high-end retail in, you need education and social uses, too. Go to places like Leigh, where I come from, and you see huge issues of social progression, where you need different sort of outcomes than you do in King Street Manchester."

Transport and education were part of the answer, panelists agreed, but asked by Hinds to identify what had gone right and what wrong in Manchester placemaking, panelists argued that risking short-term income on new concepts and operators was the best way to ensure long-term success. "You need a buzz, you need a reason to go to these places," Sanderson said.

But above all, to do placemaking properly panelists agreed you need to understand what the place already is. "You have to work with the grain," Sanderson said.

Otherwise failure isn't just a creative short-term friend, it is your gloomy long-term destiny.