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Cooking Up A Neighbourhood: Restaurants In Manchester Placemaking (And What They Can't Do)

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Can a fancy restaurant turn a wasteland into a destination? Has placemaking in Manchester come to rely too heavily on food and beverage offers, whilst the property industry shirks its responsibilities?

A week ahead of the Bisnow Manchester State of the Market event on 27 March, which focuses on how placemaking is working in the city, Bisnow spoke to one of Manchester's top entrepreneurial chefs. And what he said should worry the property business.

Canto restaurant Ancoats
Interior at Canto, Ancoats

Simon Shaw is the Chef Patron at El Gato Negro, one of the most popular and respected Spanish restaurants in the city. His arrival in King Street was the first of a (modest) surge in King Street openings as the city’s business improvement district tried to replace empty fashion units with eateries in the beleaguered but once fashionable shopping street. El Gato Negro was a central part of the regeneration effort.

In May 2018, Shaw opened Canto, a modern Portuguese restaurant, in Ancoats, taking space at Cutting Room Square. Very soon he hopes to open a third outlet, this time with a Levantine feel, in a basement unit at the junction of Brown and King streets.

According to Shaw, whose property business Mills Hill Developments is the facilitator for each new opening, property people too readily overestimate the effect of a restaurant. He hinted that expecting a few restaurants to complete the job of placemaking — and fill the gaps left by the property business — is neither realistic, nor likely to succeed.

“Four years ago Ancoats reminded me of Shoreditch in the 1990s, a rough place but with character, with some edge. We decided to take Canto there because we could see the place really changing, and it has. We’ve the media saying its one of the coolest places to live, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it,” Shaw told Bisnow.

Cutting room square manchester
Chapman Taylor's designs for Cutting Room Square, Ancoats

After a century in eclipse, Ancoats is back in vogue among developers.

Its warehouses and factories, once fit only for squatters and grafitti, now make ideal apartment schemes as the tightly constrained and hugely popular Northern Quarter overspills its boundaries. In Ancoats, developers found empty or clearable sites, large buildings to convert — meaning improved viability — low costs relative to the city core, and fewer existing occupiers to complicate the regeneration story. In all, Ancoats was close to the virgin territory of residential and office developers' dreams.

The rise of Ancoats as a residential location, and increasingly a commercial location too, coincided with a surge in the Manchester restaurant business. Figures this week from CGA show that between 2013 and 2018 Manchester saw a 22.3% increase in restuarant provision, a rate of growth three times faster than London, North West Business Insider reports.

Manchester Life's Cutting Room Square — the residential development and new public space next to the Halle Orchestra's St Peter's rehearsal and performance venue — is the focus of much of the activity.

New arrivals include artisan bakery and award-winning coffee shop Trove, sourdough bakery Pollen, funky fish bar Hip Hop Chip Shop, Altrincham's Sugo Pasta Kitchen and Shaw's Canto.

But Shaw said developers are relying too much on restaurants to do the heavy lifting of bringing a previously ignored area back to life.

“It is an interesting demographic in Ancoats. You’ve 6,000 to 8,000 people, including 20-somethings with flats bought by their parents, but also people in their 50s and 60s who want to live in the city, and prices there go up to £750K so these people are not all kids. But Ancoats needs more retail, more activity, it feels sometimes like a place you sleep but it needs to feel like a home," Shaw said.

"Compare Ancoats with London districts and you can see what’s missing: in London you might never leave your neighbourhood at weekends because it has markets, concerts, retail and particularly independent retail. Ancoats needs to be much more of a neighbourhood and less of a dormitory.

“My worry is that there might not be enough in districts like Ancoats to keep people there. It’s all relatively new, but we struggle to fill up Canto on a Sunday, and a neighbourhood diner should be packed on a Sunday.”

Simon shaw manchester chef patron el gato
El Gato Negro's Simon Shaw

So how to get the placemaking right?

Shaw said the answer is to recognise that whilst eating and sleeping are basic to any neighbourhood, they certainly don’t complete the list. If the property business doesn’t grasp this point, it risks disaster. Short-term thinking is also to blame, he suggested.

“We need a mix of uses in places like Ancoats, the right mix," he said. "I can’t say which part of the city we looked at, but there was another city neighbourhood we considered opening in but we didn’t like the mix of retail and residential and thought it wouldn’t work. We’ve also come across cases where landlords impose too many conditions.

“You can’t just fill the place with apartments, you also have to ask yourself long-term questions, like what will this place look like in a year or so, when residents have exhausted the local eating options? We’re already seeing this in Ancoats — sometimes the district is deathly.”

Shaw hopes that new attractions in Ancoats, like the Halle Orchestra’s occupation of the converted St Peter's Church, will help. But a better, more varied mix of retail and leisure businesses is the key to sustainable placemaking.

“We need to drive numbers up in Ancoats,” Shaw said of the need to keep local residents occupied in their own neighbourhood. “When the Halle opens, that will help, but we mustn’t lose site of keeping independent retailers, they give the place character, and will they be priced out of the market? That’s my worry, that Manchester turns into Dubai [stripped of its local flavour] so what I'm worried about is the potential that this turns nasty. I just hope the growth of the last few years doesn’t come to a grinding halt and a catastrophic end.”

A catastrophic end? The perennially upbeat property business does not like to think the curtain will ever come down on a development boom, let alone that it could be self-inflicted. But Shaw’s fear that a soulless city could be the outcome is not too much of a leap of the imagination.

His warning is clear: A few restaurants cannot mask a wider lack of placemaking effort.

Join the conversation at the Manchester State of the Market event on 27 March at the Fairfield Social Club.