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Footballer-turned-developer Gary Neville: from defender to playmaker

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The former Manchester United defender is one of several former footballers moving into property development. He tells Richard Waite how his vision has helped shape the design of his latest project

‘This is like you doing an interview with Shoot magazine,’ jokes Gary Neville to Ken Shuttleworth, founder of Make and architect of Neville’s proposed new Manchester high-rise scheme.

While no stranger to appearing in the national media and on TV as a pundit on Sky Sports, the straight-talking, former England and Manchester United defender has had little experience of talking to the architectural press.

But he seems keen to chat. He wants to be taken seriously. He wants his new scheme to be taken seriously. He doesn’t want to mess up.   

Neville, 41, is among a new and growing wave of footballers-turned-developers. One of his partners on the St Michael’s scheme – a major city-centre development he has just presented to a room full of property press and investors – is former United team mate Ryan Giggs.

Separately, in London, Neville’s one-time co-defender Rio Ferdinand is collaborating with ex-West Ham striker Bobby Zamora and current West Ham midfielder Mark Noble on a new, socially motivated development programme, Legacy Foundation (see below).

To give Neville his due, the Bury-born footballer has already worked on a number of construction projects. These include the football-themed hotel (with rooftop five-a-side pitch) next to Old Trafford designed by AEW, and his own (never realised) Tellytubby-style subterranean home in Bolton – also drawn up by Make. 

Neville is also involved in plans, being delivered by JM Architects, to turn Manchester Stock Exchange into a boutique hotel, having moved out the squatters he and Giggs temporarily allowed to stay in the empty building before last Christmas.

The elements Neville has steered the hardest – such as the open spaces – appear the most successful 

But the St Michael’s scheme, close to Manchester’s historic town hall, with its 31 and 21-storey towers and its Singaporean backer Rowlsey, is (pardon the pun) in a different league. Hence the glitzy press conference in the town hall, together with all its flash-bulb hullabaloo. Standing in front of the gathered property press, the city’s soon-to-retire council chief executive Howard Bernstein and a clutch of stakeholders, Neville confidently states: ‘Our vision is to deliver the biggest statement in architecture and development that Manchester has seen in modern times.’

V02 skyline

V02 skyline

Visualisation of Make’s proposal for the St Michael’s scheme

After a passionate and well-rehearsed public show, he then sets aside time to talk me through the finer detail. Neville is eloquent, enthusiastic and has clearly lived and breathed this scheme for almost a decade, shaping the design as the project developed and grew.

Make was initially approached by Neville’s business partner and director of Burnley FC Brendan Flood to look at redeveloping the synagogue in Jackson’s Row – the name taken by Neville, Giggs and Flood for their development vehicle. But the plans, which originally only featured a serviced hotel, have ballooned in scale as adjoining sites were acquired, including the (rather handsome) 1930s Bootle Street police station and, controversially, the Sir Ralph Abercromby pub. Both will be flattened, as will the Manchester Reform Synagogue, which will be given a new home in the development.

There is no doubt the blueprints currently on the drawing board are the result, in no small part, to Neville’s own hard-headed vision. 

‘I don’t take on projects that don’t meet my design criteria,’ he says. ’Design brings value.

‘[But] I am driven and I am absolutely relentless [in my pursuit of] pragmatic, realistic, usable design.’

Early proposals appeared like a ‘clunky, clumsy’ walled, square‑ish fortress. Neville and the team had a rethink. He wanted the site opened up.

Now at the heart of the scheme is a Spanish Steps-like valley of three linked plazas, which he hopes will be populated throughout the year.

‘I am sick of open spaces being designed where [the developer] just puts some cobbles down [in the hope] that people will come and sit there,’ he says.

‘You have got to create activity – places to sit, reflect, relax, lounge – [a place that can] be a beer garden, be your front room, be your office. That was my driving force all the way through.’

Spelling out his relationship with Make, Shuttleworth and project architect Stuart Fraser, he explains: ‘The architect can sometimes look at schemes from a very clinical position: “This is my building, I won’t move and I won’t bend”.  But I am looking at this scheme as an investor and as a citizen of Manchester. I’m also looking at its usability and as a product. Actually, that tension between client and architect is critical.’

The external look of the two towers, however, is off-limits. ‘Where I do stay clear is facade design – and from those aspects of speciality where I can’t comment,’ he says.

Perhaps he should intervene, though. The elements Neville has steered the hardest – such as the open spaces – appear the most successful. Once the ‘connectivity’ (Neville says he hates this ‘marketing buzzword’) has been sorted out and the stairway is no longer an elevated dead-end, the central plaza could become a genuinely interesting public space.

St michaels square townhall] 02

St michaels square townhall] 02

‘Spanish Steps’-style plaza at the heart of the St Michael’s scheme

However the two ‘skinny’ hotel, apartment and office elements – designed by Shuttleworth without flat roofs, unlike the rest of Manchester’s skyscrapers – are not as effective.

The concept for this pair of high-rise blocks, just a stone’s throw from Albert Square and the 1877 Grade I-listed town hall, seems to have been watered down from the original sketches: early doodles from MIPIM 2015 showed a blocky, tree-filled eco-tower, Charles Correa meets Ken Yeang and Sou Fujimoto. The size of these soon-to-be-submitted towers has not gone unnoticed by Historic England, which in pre-application responses said it had ‘great concern’ about the project.The heritage organisation wrote to Neville’s Jackson Row Developments to say: ‘[The] scale and form of the plans would cause a high level of harm to both the conservation area and the setting of the nationally important civic buildings of the town hall and library.’

The word on Manchester’s streets is that there may also be issues with neighbours over rights-to-light. 

What is more, the demolition of the historic Abercromby pub, the only building remaining from St Peter’s Fields, site of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, has provoked local anger – even though Neville has promised to give new jobs to the pub’s employees and find a new home for its 50-year-old bar (see the petition against demolition here).

The former footballer’s approach to development echoes his approach that made him England’s most capped right back. This isn’t all fancy-Dan overhead kicks and pointless stepovers. 

As has been shown in the BBC television documentary about his involvement with Salford City FC, he is persistent, opinionated and committed.

‘We carry a huge responsibility to build something very special on this site,’ Neville says. ‘It is fair to say, that when you are a developer, there are tensions and there are challenges.It is not for us as both developer and citizen of Manchester to shy away from those. We will tackle them head-on. That’s the way we deal with things.’

Sadly, his straight talking and dedication didn’t work out at Valencia FC, where he lasted only four months as coach, and, as every architect knows, even the toughest, teeth-gritted slog sometimes isn’t enough to succeed. Football and property development are very different ball games but, if it does come down to determination and preparation, then Neville might just pull this off.

Pre-planning application consultation on the scheme runs until 27 September 2016 enquiries@st-michaels.com or dedicated freephone information line on 0800 032 5725.

Ken Shuttleworth on Gary Neville

Jgo stmichaels 28072016 25

Jgo stmichaels 28072016 25

Ken Shuttleworth with Gary Neville at the press presentation of the St Michael’s scheme in Manchester

‘We’ve been working with Gary and on this site for a long time. From the outset it has been clear that he is passionate about architecture and its responsibility when it comes to placemaking and the environment, as well as its power to communicate, engage and provoke. 

‘Despite the changes in site boundaries and the needs of different parties, his focus on the end-vision has been unwavering. He understands the constraints and the processes. Ultimately he is extremely committed to Manchester and to its development and he – together with the whole team – are really excited about the transformational potential of St Michael’s.’

Bobby Zamora on building for communities

Bobby zamora  copywright paul hazlewood (3)

Bobby zamora copywright paul hazlewood (3)

Source: Paul Hazlewood

Bobby Zamora

Former West Ham striker Bobby Zamora talks about his collaboration with ex-England defender Rio Ferdinand and current Premiership star Mark Noble on a new housing initiative, the Legacy Foundation

What first got you interested in property and development?

It all started with the Legacy Foundation. Legacy began from us wanting to make a difference to kids growing up in similar situations to us. We could all remember how important it was to have the support of a tight community and something to do to keep us occupied. There’s that particularly important time between finishing school and parents getting home from work where it’s vital that there’s somewhere in the community kids can go, have fun and be safe. The interest in development came out of wanting to help provide that.

An increasing number of footballers seem to be interested in developing. Why do you think that is?

The modern-day footballer is more interested in life after and beyond football. That’s why I’m so proud of what we’re doing with Legacy, which is very different to what Ryan, Gary, etc are doing. 

How did Legacy come about?

Rio, Mark and I all had similar upbringings. Over the last few years, all three of us had been thinking about how we could use our profile and resources to help children and families growing up in similar circumstances to the ones we grew up in.

We’d all done visits to schools and sports clubs and enjoyed meeting the kids, but we realised that, as soon as we left, our impact was over; we weren’t creating anything that would last. The three of us spent a lot of time discussing it and we realised the single most important factor that influences people’s opportunity to succeed is good-quality housing and living in a united community. 

What are you hoping to achieve?

To deliver schemes with up 50 per cent affordable housing, with fully integrated sports and community facilities, skills and apprenticeship programmes for local communities during the development and building phases and, ultimately, leave a community asset that’s fully owned by the local authority. 

That’s how our model is different and how we’re able to achieve the higher percentage of affordable housing. We can deliver schemes without the council or central government needing to finance the cost of the build, while still giving full occupancy and control when completed.

Will you be looking for design teams in the future? 

Absolutely. We’re looking at a number of different procurement routes, including direct appointment and design competition. Our approach to each site and what we require will vary depending on the project and the stakeholders involved.  

What sites do you currently have and what plots are you looking for?

We’re developing schemes with Central Bedfordshire Council, and are in early talks with other London boroughs. 

We’re looking for local authorities that share our vision and of course have either land for development or existing housing estates that require regeneration.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Unbelievable. Completely out of scale and character. But hey, they are star England footballers so thats ok.

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