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    Blog by Tom Bloxham MBE

    From sex shops and pet shops to Chanel; Manchester’s Northern Qtr has come a long way

    08 December 2023
    A 4 minute read by Tom Bloxham

    Fashion house Chanel strutted its way into Manchester this week with the Metiers d’Art show in the Northern Quarter.

    With famous faces gathered on an al fresco catwalk (with a cover, this is Manchester after all), it’s easy to forget the transformation of this part of the city. While it’s popular now, the Northern Qtr was once far from in vogue and here, our Chairperson Tom Bloxham MBE reflects on the change…

    Manchester’s come a long way. Back when we started Urban Splash in 1993, the Northern Quarter didn’t even have a name, but here we are 30 years later with Chanel using these gritty streets as the backdrop to a huge fashion event.

    It’s a far cry from the days when I was working in Afflecks Palace, surrounded by sex shops, pet shops and crappy pubs; the rag trade that once dominated the area moved to Cheetham Hill, taking any kind of identity with it; it just became known as that “crappy part of Manchester behind Market St".

    Chanel strutted its way into Manchester this week with the Metiers d’Art show in the Northern Quarter

    One of our earliest Urban Splash schemes was Smithfield Buildings, a former department store. We transformed it into loft apartments and ground floor and basement commercial spaces which were ultimately filled with a rich and diverse mix of shops, restaurants and bars.

    We were invested in and passionate about the future of the area, and we were fortunate enough to be centrally involved in some early conversations about its name. We toyed with Eastside, Northside, but in the end the Northern Quarter won with an N/4 brand identity marking the start of a new era – one defined by the bohemian and independent.

    In the years since the Northern Quarter’s become a symbol of creativity, a place in which fledgling businesses have been able to thrive. While the IRA bomb in 1996 devastated the city, it also heralded an era of change – one defined by resilience, with forward-thinking city leaders and pioneering developers like Urban Splash coming together to regenerate, and invest in forgotten parts of town – places like the Northern Quarter.

    Loft apartments at Smithfield Buildings - one of the early Urban Splash developments in what's now known as Manchester's Northern Quarter

    Manchester was a city that had been dormant most nights of the week, but we wanted to cater to the growing appetite of new urban residents who wanted a slice of the city life too – people determined to make the city centre their home. The 81 loft apartments we created in the Smithfield Buildings were some of the first in the Northern Quarter, before we then went on to create other homes in Castlefield and New Islington.

    The culmination of those collaborative efforts have helped make Manchester what it is today – especially as its cultural credentials and position on the global stage continue to grow. Take this past few weeks alone; just before the Chanel event, we heard that English National Opera had chosen Manchester as its new home – news that’s come just weeks after the opening of Aviva Studios, another incredible cultural institution for the city and home of Factory International (which I’m proud to Chair).

    Aviva Studios in Manchester - home to Factory International (Photo by Marco Cappelletti, courtesy of OMA and Factory International)

    Manchester’s caught the attention of big names in the hospitality sector too; the city will soon get its own Soho House, W Hotel and we recently welcomed restaurant brand Sexy Fish.

    It’s a place that’s changed so much in three decades; we’ve kept the history and added new ideas that have turned a place once famous for cotton and textiles, into a hub of international art, culture, and creativity.

    The models may be on the stage, but Manchester’s the real catwalk star.

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