When Manchester City Council, London & Continental Railways and Transport for Greater Manchester announced that they were seeking a development partner for the 30-acre Mayfield site in 2016, many outside the property industry were unaware that this sprawling former railway depot site next to Piccadilly station even existed.
Fast-forward a year and developer U+I is progressing plans for an ambitious £850m mixed-use scheme that will provide 1,300 homes, 750,000 sq ft of office space, a hotel and retail. This will take a decade to complete - but the public are soon to get an early taster. In the coming weeks the developer will open up part of the site as a street-food destination, along with office space and a community garden.
So what was the motivation behind these plans and how will the street-food offer fare in the Mancunian market?
“We needed to reintroduce Mayfield to the people of Manchester because the site has been derelict for so long and, despite its proximity to Piccadilly station, feels a little forgotten and neglected,” says James Heather, development director at U+I. “It’s really about us breathing some new life into the site and starting to build some awareness.”
Tom McWilliams of JLL’s Manchester office agrees that the site is not currently known to most of the city’s residents. “It’s an unusual site because it’s remained relatively untouched for 30 years. If you spoke to 100 people in Manchester, about five might know where Mayfield is,” he says.
Although unknown, the site’s location on Baring Street is the envy of other developers. “A huge, 30-acre site as well located as this in central Manchester is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” says Rob Yates of Cushman & Wakefield in Manchester.
The site is sandwiched between Piccadilly station and the Northern Quarter and the latter’s reputation as a fashionable yet gritty retail and leisure destination is something that U+I will be hoping to capitalise on with its offer, which will be anchored by street-food events company Grub Manchester.
“[In the Northern Quarter] there is a bakery where people are queuing for an hour on a Sunday morning to get their sourdough bread,” says McWilliams. “They are trying to engender a similar feel down in Mayfield and to catch people spilling out of the Northern Quarter.”
The decision to offer street food was a conscious one on U+I’s part, helping the company to brand the scheme as a creative destination. Initially opening every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from lunchtime onwards, the food fair will comprise a changing roster of six street-food operators, as well as craft beers from the local Runaway Brewery.
“Our priority was to find something that would feel accessible and inclusive, would really energise the site and would attract a vibrant and interesting mix of people,” Heather says.
A huge, 30-acre site as well located as this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity - Rob Yates, C&W
This will help U+I to differentiate its scheme from the other large developments going on in the city when it comes to engaging occupiers, according to Yates.
“I don’t think they see it as another Spinningfields or a traditional office scheme that becomes a bit soulless at night-time. They are intentionally trying to go at it from a different angle,” he says.
“I suspect they are taking their inspiration from schemes such as Argent’s King’s Cross in London: if they can create something half as good as that in Manchester, they will have done brilliantly in my view.” Before joining U+I, Heather worked for Argent for 17 years, including on Birmingham’s Brindleyplace - so he is no stranger to this approach.
Although there are pop-up street-food markets and stalls in Manchester, there is not currently a permanent offering of this kind in the city centre. One nearby area where it has worked well, however, is Altrincham, where the 2014 revival of the town’s old market hall with a street-food focus has been successful against a background of wider decline in the town’s retail offering.
It has done so well that its owners, entrepreneurs Nick Johnson - formerly of Urban Splash - and Jenny Thompson, are thought to be seeking a central Manchester site, as are several other market operators. However, a lack of appropriate locations, and their inability to compete with residential uses, means the right site is hard to come by - making U+I’s opportunity all the more unique.
“There is nothing of that ilk in Manchester and I think the city is crying out for it,” McWilliams explains.
U+I’s market research found the same. “We have spent a lot of time in the last few months meeting a diverse range of people in Manchester from all walks of life,” Heather says, adding that the developer was keen not to “impose something on the city”.
“We found there was a real appetite for us to create a new venue with a unique and engaging character, so we hope that’s what we’ve done.”
There is nothing of [this] ilk in Manchester and I think the city is crying out for it - Tom McWilliams, JLL
However, it is not all about the food. Although Grub will anchor the site, Heather says that U+I could “build other cultural or business events into the programme in due course” and that there is “every chance the site will open up a little more over the next year or so”. The site will also be the developer’s new office base in the city, as well as housing some co-working space, which will initially be small but has the potential to grow.
“It will feel quite edgy, gritty and creative,” says Heather. “We’re talking to a number of really interesting individuals about taking up some space at the site. These are largely people working in not-for-profit and community concerns where co-location will be really beneficial for them.”
Although it is a long way off, Heather says there is also potential for the pop-up food operators to become part of the finished Mayfield development. “The finished scheme will certainly include permanent hospitality businesses and, who knows, might include pop-up space as well,” Heather adds. “We’re really keen that we retain some of the independent character that we think this initial usage will bring to Mayfield.”
Despite only being a small part of it, this corner of the site represents U+I’s chance to make a first impression on the people of Manchester. With the potential to create a whole new district of the city at stake, it will be hoping it is a good one.
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