As the design team tasked with transforming Piccadilly Gardens starts work, Manchester Civic Society demanded that the hated concrete wall – likened by many to the Berlin Wall – separating the gardens from nearby trams and buses be demolished.
Steve Speakman, the society’s chairman, said: “We abhor the Berlin Wall and whatever the difficulties, the council should make strident efforts to remove it – notwithstanding the problems of ownership.
“We also lament the passing of the iconic sunken gardens which gave Manchester city centre its identity for almost a century. We believe that, given adequate security in place, they could have continued in their iconic form.
“Going forward, any new design must avoid being a bland, ubiquitous plan that could be anywhere and become distinctive again.”
The society also called for the statue of Queen Victoria on the north edge of the gardens – which they say is in “a woeful state” – to be cleaned up and given a place of prominence in the gardens.
The Civic Society’s demands however are likely to fall on deaf ears, for although the free-standing section of Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s wall will be removed, the main section backing the so-called “pavilion” of shops and cafés is owned by pension fund Legal and General – it came when the company bought the office block One Piccadilly Gardens for £75 million in 2014 – and is subject to a 250-year lease.
In 2017, L & G submitted proposals for replacing the pavilion with new buildings – and removing the wall – but the £10 million scheme was withdrawn 18 months later as financially unviable.
The viability of the scheme was linked to the continuing decline in the fortunes of mid-market chain restaurants, but L & G have apparently shown no inclination to relinquish the lease of the pavilion site.
The whole sorry saga of Piccadilly Gardens began in the late 1990s when the town hall decided to sell part of the gardens along Portland Street for development to fund their redesign and improvements to the public realm. It was part of a deal that saw the owners of Piccadilly Plaza refurbish the hotel and office complex.
The thrust of the new design for Piccadilly Gardens was to reduce maintenance costs and eradicate antisocial behaviour – mainly groups of problem drinkers – by increasing public footfall. Neither seems to have worked.
Grassed areas are continually having to be re-turfed and parts of the gardens have become notorious for drug dealing, problem drinking and too often, violence.
LDA Design (Manchester) will now come up with a number of outline schemes which Manchester residents and businesses will then be consulted on in the spring.
They were the landscape architects behind the previous scheme, which attracted broad public support before being withdrawn.
The Council would like to keep many of the core elements of that original scheme including new planting, improved lighting and design to help deter anti-social behaviour, raising grassed areas and re-laying paths to repair the damaged areas.
The main part of the pavilion wall will stay, but there’s now “an aspiration” to soften its appearance, transforming it into a green ‘living wall’ and by removing the free-standing part of the wall.
The plans will also take in a wider area than the previous scheme, expanding the area under consideration to include the section of Piccadilly to the north of the gardens, Parker Street to the south and Mosley Street to the west.
Council leader Sir Richard Leese said: “We know that Piccadilly Gardens is a major issue for a lot of people which they have strong views about. We are committed to funding and bringing forward a scheme that will both improve its appearance and help make it more of a welcoming, family-friendly space.
“We look forward to sharing further ideas and details with the public and having a conversation on how best to improve the gardens as soon as we are in a position to do so.”