The shattered dream of the streets in the sky above Piccadilly Gardens – and where you can find what’s left of them

Manchester is still under construction, it will always be under construction. It is a collection of centuries of architecture.

But in the 1960s a plan for Mosley Street and a town center ring road might have seen some of the historic buildings on Oxford Street, Portland Street and Mosley Street demolished in favor of the ‘Piccadilly Entertainment District’.

In their place would be a monolithic, brutalist neighborhood elevated above the city on the first floor with plazas and walkways, linking the cinemas and theaters of Oxford Road to the Manchester Art Gallery and beyond.

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Plans for the entertainment district were to coincide with the redevelopment of five other areas of the city – the civic area, i.e. around City Hall, the cathedral area, the Market Street area , the area around what was Manchester Central Station and was later GMEX and the Education Quarter.

While many of these areas have now been developed into some semblance of the original 1967 plans, the plan for Mosley Street – the evoked Piccadilly Entertainment District – has been scrapped, with only a few reminders left in the town of what might have been.

A sketch showing the planned ‘Piccadilly Entertainment District’ from 1967

“The idea was that all types of entertainment, the public, would be uplifted,” Professor Richard Brook, professor of architecture and urban planning at Manchester Metropolitan University, told MEN.

“You would be on the ground floor in this new pedestrian landscape and the buses and everything else would have been on the ground floor.

“It was about separating pedestrians and traffic obviously, with the ambition for pedestrians to have this new aerial environment.”

The area would have stretched from Piccadilly Gardens to Mosley Street, across Oxford Street and to Lower Mosley Street, with the Odeon plan seen in the sketch above at the Piccadilly end of Mosley Street.

Model showing elevated pedestrian bridges over Oxford Street and Lower Mosley Road
Model showing elevated pedestrian bridges over Oxford Street and Lower Mosley Road

Although the dream never materialized, here are a few more buildings in the city that show how close it has come to reality.

“If you think of the buildings there, like the Piccadilly Plaza itself, you know that the main entrance to the hotel (Mercure Manchester Piccadilly) was at a high level originally,” added Professor Brooks.

“There is a ground floor entrance now, but the idea was that you would enter through the parking lot.”

The entrance to the Mercure Manchester Piccadilly hotel car park, which would have been the official entrance
The entrance to the Mercure Manchester Piccadilly car park

“Similarly if you look at the old Bank of England building (Bank House and Bank Chambers) it has a podium and a tower and the roof of the podium was supposed to be connected to Piccadilly.”

The current Mercure Manchester Piccadilly Hotel still has the original entrance to the car park, with the main reception and entrance located on the first floor.

Meanwhile, the podium of the old Bank Chambers building is still intact, now housing a Café Nero and what was Dawson’s music store.

In 1967 the plan was to have elevated streets with bridges and a series of sky squares running up to Oxford Road and beyond, eventually connecting to the Manchester Central Convention Complex via Lower Mosley Street, with a new complex of buildings where Bridgewater Hall now stands.

View along Mosley Street towards Piccadilly from the junction with Princess Street in 1966. The City Art Gallery is on the right, with the Commercial Union Assurance building under construction beyond

Sadly, other buildings that stood on Mosley Street and also held clues to these plans have since been demolished.

The Eagle Star House had an exterior walkway on the first floor to be incorporated into a bridge and the Williams and Deacons Bank, at the corner of Mosley Street and New York Street, had an exterior landscaped area to plug into the proposed aerial streets.

Bank Chambers podium was designed for a bridge over Mosley Street

Explaining the reasoning behind the plans, Prof Brook said: ‘It’s the idea of ​​really plugging into the commercial core of Piccadilly via the town’s art gallery and an extension of the cinemas which have been established on Oxford Road and Oxford St.

“It’s kind of an exchange on this idea of ​​connecting pieces of existing entertainment, culture and entertainment with new theaters. A kind of creation of a new entertainment district.

“So a lot of the buildings that came up, they were piecemeal, they were on their own sites but they were designed to take into account the possibility that they were all plugged together.”

There are three main reasons why the city in the sky never became a reality for Manchester.

First, the municipality did not own the buildings that would have had to be demolished or modified to allow the completion of the aerial complex.

Second, although the council had mandatory purchase orders, meaning they could take ownership of the land, there was no developer on hand to push the plans forward and no council funds for the project.

Third, although their failure had a lot to do with funding, it was the Victorian Society that opposed the plans at the corner of Portland Street and Princess Street at a public inquiry that ultimately put the nail in the coffin of the project.

Plan showing a new entertainment district and raised pedestrian bridges over Oxford Street
Plan showing a new entertainment district and raised pedestrian bridges over Oxford Street

A plan to extend the Mancunian Way to Portland Street, creating a ring road through the city centre, also on two levels, was also abandoned as a result of this public inquiry in the 1970s.

This left the city with the Mancunian Way as we know it today, a short burst of a “highway in the sky”.

The plans would have seen historic buildings altered and demolished to make way for the new roads and high-rise district, but the Victorian society made it very clear why these buildings were heritage and needed to be protected.

While today we regard Victorian buildings as key to the city’s character, in the 1960s they weren’t as valued.

Piccadilly Gardens, mid 1960s

“A lot of this stuff in the 60s was based on the massive demolition of everything else,” Professor Brook said.

“So you knock down all the old buildings and replace them with all the new stuff, which at the time was very popular because Victorian buildings were considered very dirty, unsanitary and part of the old past. industrial and not of the new city.

“The idea of ​​Victorian buildings as heritage only really started to develop in the late 1960s and late 1970s and that’s still one of the reasons why it doesn’t wasn’t produced in the 60s, it started to lose momentum.

“The lack of property-owned buildings, the lack of a developer to push the big idea forward, and then this kind of collapse of the inner ring road project all combined to make this not happen.”

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