All Fall Down: Will Manchester Tower Plans Take A Tumble?
The 54-storey residential and hotel tower planned for Manchester's St John's development is no more: Allied London and their partners scrapped it citing "unresolved development issues".
Is this the moment when Manchester's crop of two dozen residential skyscraper proposals begin to topple like skittles, as commercial reality and development pressures take their toll?
Ahead of the Manchester State of the Market event on 27 March, Bisnow finds out.
Days after investor Europa Capital acquired Salford's 44-storey 100 Greengate residential skyscraper, just across the river Irwell a rival 54-storey skyscraper scheme was unceremoniously dumped. The website page devoted to the St John's Tower now reads "Error" and that, in the opinon of some observers and, it seems, the developers, is exactly what it was.
A statement from Manchester Goodsyard, the joint venture between Allied London and Manchester City Council that had been behind the skyscraper, said they would "reconsider some of the residential elements of the masterplan."
"St. John’s Place Tower has unresolved development issues which have meant the legal conditions within apartment purchasers’ sale contracts have not been met. Manchester Quays has therefore decided to operate the termination clauses in these sale contracts and repay all deposits as it is entitled to do," it added.
The developers also confirmed that the same unnamed "development issues" had caused them to spike plans for 65 apartments at South Village, also part of the scheme. The site will instead be absorbed into the new TV/Film Studio business, and all purchasers who had bought apartments in the scheme have been contacted and have had their deposits fully refunded.
Getting to the bottom of the problem is not easy. The developers talk of "the interaction between sites and the mixed use of the masterplan" and "interface issues between uses and sites" leading to "an uncertain program for the some of the residential elements".
Poor overseas sales of the apartments, the lack of a big-name investment backer, and the departure of the tower's boutique hotel operator Nadler have also been cited, PlaceNorthWest reports.
The tower, optimistically described in its brochure as "a living landmark" is now a very dead marker of an ambiton that stretched just a bit too high.
The Lights Go Out On Residential?
Does the St John's pivot from residential to commercial use signal a wider shift away from the Manchester residential sector? There is certainly evidence that some developers are reconsidering their options.
In December 2018 Trilogy, the owners of the 6-acre Great Northern site at Deansgate, revealed that it has decided to ride Manchester's tech wave by replacing 142 apartments with 146K SF of hipster-friendly office space in their historic warehouse conversion.
Residential developers do not buy the idea that the tide is going out on their sector. Instead they point to the overwhelming evidence of history that building skyscrapers outside London requires a rare combination of circumstances, and always has. The recent run of skyscraper plans in Manchester prove nothing, they say.
“There’s nothing new here. The viability of building very tall buildings has always been and still remains a challenge," Glenbrook Director Ian Sherry said.
"With the exception of Renaker, which is unique in that it is a developer and a contractor, even in this bull market we haven’t seen many residential-led towers delivered outside of London, even less so schemes that are reliant on overseas sales to underpin funding," Sherry said.
“Whilst the Brexit mess in causing nervousness amongst a number of real estate investors, the market fundamentals that underpin Manchester’s attractiveness remain sound.”
A Lucky Escape?
There is an alternative view, and it too draws on history, and it goes like this: one of the things we learned about tower development in the 1960s and 1970s is that towers frequently mean poor public realm at ground level, sometimes even dereliction. Once built, these inflexible monsters constrain cities. In summary, the supporters of this view regard a fall-off in skyscraper plans as a lucky escape.
LJ Real Estate partner Sam Lawson-Johnston is on this side of the argument, and is far from impressed with the rash of slender glass towers.
“A lot of the studies talk about how towers are very alienating, and don’t make for happy, beautiful, interesting space," he said.
“Of course skyscrapers are important, as you need density of housing and offices. In Manchester, there’s no shortage of sites — quite a lot of decent-sized sites are on the edge of the city centre and so there is occasionally a place for high-rise development.
"But, research shows you can build high-density, low-rise housing, and reach the same density of people as a high-rise."
The reason for this is that if you have a lower-rise building, people will accept a smaller apartment, but if you have a high-rise building, people will demand a higher square footage apartment, he said.
“There is a place for it, but it needs to be very moderated — and if at all possible, interesting-looking to make sure there aren’t a tonne of generic towers with the same cladding.”
Lawson-Johnston sounds exasperated by the tower fad and said wiping a few dull and easily dated designs off the drawing board is nothing to cry about.