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Can The Northern Quarter Survive The Second Wave?

Northern Quarter vibe: Oldham Street's retail appeal

The latest coronavirus restrictions, introduced on Tuesday by Boris Johnson, the prime minister, could almost have been designed to hurt Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

Bars and restaurants locked and closed by 10pm means the shuttering of the lively district's late-night economy. Muting the 'return to your city centre desk' message in favour of home working will do little for daylight hours hospitality and retail in the Northern Quarter, already struggling to return to profitability. The rule-of-six limit on sociability is anathema in a district in which the whole point is to mingle.

No wonder the city's night-time economy bosses have declared themselves "desperately worried".

The Northern Quarter retains some of its historic rag-trade-and-roughtrade grit even after 20 years of gentrification. Could it be that this residue of devil-may-care could help the neighbourhood pull through?

Last week the co-founders of the still busy Albert's Schloss revealed that they are planning to open a new Northern Quarter venue.

The Swan Street Firehouse will be on a former garage site on land being redeveloped by Capital & Centric and the Kamani Property Group.

Just a short stroll down Swan Street, another new venture is welcoming visitors, when the law allows.

Mecanica arrives to fill a void left by the rapid appearance and then disappearance of the Quick Brown Fox, a bar whose opening last autumn turned out to be sadly mistimed. It did not survive the coronavirus pandemic and has now surrendered its lease.

The 1.4K SF bar concept will serve cocktails along with fancy plates of deli food and will be operated by the team behind coworking space ClockWork and co-living space Oppidan, which operates on the upper floors.

You might think the fate of its predecessor would deter the co-owner Gareth Harold, but he seems remarkably upbeat about bearing a £100K fit-out, despite the latest restrictions and social distancing that mean he can only operate 36 of the venue's 62 covers.

“It was a case of us owning the building, and we could either look for another tenant or do it ourselves. And we’ve been working on our branding, so with coworking and co-living you can now work, sleep and play with us,” Harold told Bisnow.

The lease surrender took the bar from one side of the balance sheet to the other and gave Harold and his team control — something likely to be envied by many other Northern Quarter hospitality businesses.

The Swan Street coworking space, ClockWork

Coworking, another staple of the Northern Quarter scene, is also looking surprisingly strong. Membership at ClockWork, the 6.5K SF coworking venue co-owned by Harold at Edge Street has doubled and that’s probably got something to do with the price.

“We’re charging £149 a month, which is really attractive to freelancers whose revenue is down but still need somewhere to meet or take a call,” said Harold, making a point widely understood by serviced office brokers. In today’s market, nobody wants to pay big bucks.

Even Oppidan, the co-living concept, hasn’t suffered as it might. “Up to a point we’ve been able to treat the building, by default, as a single bubble for some social distancing, and the amenity spaces are large enough to allow different social groups to move about.”

Confidence is such that Harold is looking at the prospects for another 100-unit scheme in the city.

So everything in the Northern Quarter is rosy? Alas, no.

Bar and restaurant operators fear a “catastrophic” hit thanks to the sudden evaporation of the city’s mighty student economy, Business Live reported.

The University of Manchester estimates that its students help contribute to more than £2B of economic activity, and support 21,000 jobs. The other half dozen universities do similar heavy lifting.

Harold said that Manchester City Council has done its best to mitigate the damage. “They are taking this quite seriously. The licensing department have approved pavement licenses for bars and restaurants, and they have done all they can. We’ve also seen streets pedestrianised, and that has been a massive boost and it should probably remain once the pandemic has gone. It’s great to see people pumping money back into the economy,” he said.

new cultural recovery plan has been launched to help revive the 30 or more locally supported theatres, orchestras and museums that help keep the Northern Quarter's bar and restaurant sector busy.

The Northern Quarter has survived trouble before now. In the 1980s and early 1990s it was a dirty if characterful backwater, and sometimes dangerous. Nostalgic souls mourn its recent transformation into something more sleek, safe and domestic. Maybe today’s turmoil is giving the district back some of its original strive-and-survive atmosphere? If it does, that can only strengthen its longer-term appeal.