Stretford Mall, Stretford Arndale, The Precinct, whatever you call it; Stretford Town Centre has been on a steady decline for some time now. After years of waiting for the old Tory Trafford Council to take action and nothing happening, it was great to see some recent good news on this from the now Labour-controlled council.
In a joint venture with Bruntwood Works, Trafford Council have purchased Stretford Mall as part of a larger plan to improve town centres across the borough. While Altrincham and Urmston have seen their town centres revitalised in recent years, Stretford has looked on forlornly, waiting for any attention from the council. So this really is good news.
Over the past year, we’ve started to see the seeds of change in the town centre with the opening of Head, Stretford Food Hall and The Longford Tap. We’ve also seen the return of a market in the form of Stretford Precinct Market, plus some fabulous one-off events from Stretford Precinct. The news of the council’s purchase makes it even more hopeful we’ll see real change in Stretford.
Trafford Council hasn’t shared any details yet of what the joint venture’s plans for Stretford Mall are. Although with Bruntwood’s involvement, I’d expect it will focus on reuse, rather than rebuild. Something that Bruntwood have done quite successfully.
I’ve idly wondered for some time what could be done with the town centre and Stretford Mall. Unsurprisingly, many people have asked for the demolition of the mall, and have it replaced with something along the lines of the original town centre.
The construction of Stretford Mall happened before I was born, so I’ve no idea what the old town centre was like. But I know my mother used to travel from the other side of Manchester in the ’60s to go there with her friends, so I’m guessing it was somewhat better than it is now. Nowadays, many people wouldn’t bother travelling from one side of Stretford to go there, many choosing to jump in their cars and go further afield.
Looking at old photos before the mall was built and the widening of Chester Road and Edge Lane, the town is very reminiscent of other town centres nearby, such as Chorlton or Urmston. It definitely looks a more vibrant and attractive town centre than we have now.
I can see why it might be attractive to demolish and start again. Anyone who’s lived in the area in recent times may only know Stretford Mall as a faded, rundown shopping centre with lots of empty units.
I’m just about old enough to remember when it was a little more vibrant and well occupied. We often used to travel over from Urmston to go to Stretford Arndale if we wanted to go to any decent shops, as Urmston’s own town centre had little to offer in those days.
But there are drawbacks with the wholesale demolition and reconstruction approach, the biggest probably being the cost. I don’t have any figures, but to rebuild the whole of the town centre would take significant sums of money. There’s also the time it would take to do. We’d probably be looking at something in the region of 5 to 10 years from start to finish.
That kind of wholesale demolition was all the rage around the time Stretford Arndale was built. Across Greater Manchester, there was huge land clearances in places like Hulme, Old Trafford, Ardwick and Salford.
This was often under the guise of slum clearances, town centre reconstruction or road building and widening schemes. In many cases, whole communities were displaced and moved out to places like Wythenshawe and Partington, while land was cleared and left vacant for years.
I believe it would be a disaster if we took this approach with Stretford Mall. Just as we’re starting to see some rejuvenation in the town centre, turning it into a building site and a no-go area for a number of years would set us back to square one.
Also, what would we end up with if we took this approach? Most likely another bland identikit town centre with all trace of history removed and the same set of identikit shops you see everywhere, like The Rock in Bury or Redrock in Stockport. Thankfully, I don’t think this is going to happen.
So what could be done to revitalise the town centre and make it relevant again in this age of large out of town malls, retail parks and internet shopping? Well, here are my 10 steps.
1. Determine what currently works and what doesn’t
So what’s the alternative to wholesale demolition that’ll address the problems facing Stretford town centre? Well, I would start by looking at what works well currently and what doesn’t, then addressing those elements by removing and replacing them.
- Newly developed food/drink units with external access are proving popular and are helping to create a nighttime economy
- Aldi and PureGym (again with external access) are helping to draw people to the town centre, who then go on to use the other facilities
- There’s a reasonable number of people choosing to cycle to the town centre, despite issues with the surrounding roads
- Lack of external access to many of the units and limited opening hours
- Poor maintenance and upkeep of public shared areas (toilets, car park, lifts etc.)
- Severance caused by A56 Chester Road and Kingsway
- Noise/air pollution caused high levels of traffic on A56 Chester Road and Kingsway
- Poor access by foot or bike
- Dated, unwelcoming exterior of certain aspects of the building
- Low levels of social safety at night
2. Genuinely consult the community
In Stretford, we’ve seen far too many sham consultations that have been rigged to achieve the council’s preferred outcome. The Stretford Public Realm and UA92 / Refreshed Masterplan consultations are two recent examples.
The only way we’ll see the town centre revitalised and serving the community is if the council truly consult people and take our needs on board. There also needs to be a willingness to change proposals where they don’t come up to scratch, rather being defensive and unwilling to take feedback.
While we’ve seen some positive signs since the change of leadership at the council, with some of the sessions they’ve arranged, such as the ones for Lacy Street. We’ve also seen how the Civic Quarter Masterplan consultation has gone and how engagement with community could have been improved.
3. Selective demolition
Shopping habits have changed dramatically since Stretford Arndale was built. The advent of large out of town malls, retail parks and supermarkets, as well as internet shopping has left many town centres devoid of shops and shoppers. This is particularly true of smaller malls like Stretford Mall, where there’s limited options to change the usage of retail units.
To tackle this, I propose some selective demolition of the mall to make the mall units less enclosed and have access outside of the mall’s opening hours. Some of this demolition has already happened, with O’Briens and the southern end of the mall being demolished earlier this year (check out this fantastic post from Skyliner of this area before it was demolished). I’d extend this further to create a route through from the former O’Briens to Kingsway.
I’d also demolish the existing multistory car park and ramp. This is one of the most unattractive and unwelcoming parts of the town centre, which creates a bad first impression for anyone passing. It is also underutilised, and is pretty inconvenient if you’re coming to the mall to do your shopping at Aldi.
4. Reinstate King Street
Prior to Stretford Arndale and Kingsway being built, King Street was one of the main shopping streets in the town centre. King Street still exists, but only for a small section before it’s buried into the mall. Indeed, the buildings opposite Stretford Foodhall are still the original buildings from before the mall was built.
As you enter the mall on King Street, the units on the right hand side were actually originally Arndale House. This existed before the mall and was just incorporated into the building. If you have a look on Google Maps, you can see the first floor protruding. It probably explains why the roof is so low in this part of the mall.
With the opening of Stretford Food Hall and The Longford Tap, King Street has actually become a place you might want to linger, even if it does have the Chester Road / Edge Lane junction at the end of it.
Now imagine if King Street didn’t stop at the mall, it actually carried on through and beyond the multistory car park, all the way to Kingsway. The original buildings buried in the mall could be reinstated on the newly created street and be added to with new buildings on the multistory car park site. Doing this would create something like the old King Street, though in some ways better as it’d be traffic free.
5. Create a new public square
The demolition carried out earlier in the year on the old O’Briens site and southern end of the mall has created a large open space that’s currently unused and partially fenced off. This is with the view that the land will be developed at some stage I believe.
Stretford Precinct Market have been putting some of this space to good use as a monthly artisan market, which is great. Though there’s definitely more potential for this area, even if there are issues with its location on Chester Road. With some investment, this could become a new public square, creating a focal point and somewhere people could spend time. Plus, it could become the permanent home to a regular Stretford market.
There are problems. The site currently feels quite exposed and suffers from noise and air pollution from Chester Road. But this could be resolved by placing buildings on the edge of the site, creating a barrier between the square and Chester Road. Dual aspect retail units with residential above, facing onto the square would be ideal here.
6. Create a new traffic-free street between Kingsway and the new public square
With King Street reinstated in the north of the town centre and a new public square in the south, there isn’t a direct route between the two, except through the mall. While this is fine during opening hours, it isn’t much use in the evening.
If the north/south route through the mall was demolished, it could make way for a new traffic-free street, connecting Kingsway to King Street, the remaining section of the mall and the new public square.
New retail units could be built along the east side of the street, potentially with apartments above. This could be something along the lines of the redeveloped Eden Square in Urmston.
7. Create new external frontages on the south side
Currently, the retail units on the south side of the mall just have rear service entrances onto the car park. While this might have been appropriate when the mall was built, when the focus was on the indoor space, there’s actually a lot of potential here to do better.
If these rear entrances were remodelled to create new frontages, part of this rather tatty car park could become a new street and the units would have 24 hour access. With a new pedestrian area in front of the shops, it could connect the new public square with the area in front of Costa Coffee and help to provide a walkable route around the mall.
8. Improve access by foot and bike
While there’s clearly issues with the mall. I actually think the construction of Kingsway and Widening of the A56 Chester Road are more responsible for the downturn of the town centre. These roads and Barton Road act a barrier for pedestrian and cycle access, causing severance between the town centre and the rest of Stretford.
For the town centre to thrive, it needs to be somewhere that people want to walk and cycle to. If not, then people will continue to get in their cars and most likely choose to go to the Trafford Centre or another shopping centre or retail park.
A56 Chester Road
The A56 is problematic along the whole of its route through Trafford, but the dual carriageway section through Stretford town centre, with its 6 lanes of traffic is the worst part. The combination of large amounts of high speed traffic (the 30 limit has achieved little in reducing speeds), poor pedestrian crossings (made worse by the removals of the subways) that prioritise motor traffic and lack of any safe space for cycling has left Stretford split in two.
While a number of people have talked about doing something quite radical with the A56, such as building a tunnel under Stretford (I’m not against this idea, though it would need to go under the whole of Stretford, not just the town centre), there’s an alternative approach that’s cheaper and probably move achievable. Although this won’t solve all the problems caused by the A56, it would at least make the road a little more pleasant and safer for those walking and cycling and reduce noise and air pollution.
We start by reducing the numbers of general traffic lanes down to 4 and introduce dedicated bus lanes. We’d then add a buffer from the motor traffic and protected cycleways, with the west side going in both directions. We’d also include wider footways and upgrade the existing pedestrian crossings to prioritise pedestrians over traffic, then look at opportunities to add more crossings.
By doing this, we’d create a safer, more pleasant space for people walking and cycling, that’s separated from the motor traffic. We’d also see a real reduction in speeds with the removal of general traffic lanes and a narrowing of the remaining lanes. Bus lanes would help to reduce journey times and make the bus a more attractive option.
If the Civic Quarter Masterplan goes ahead as proposed, Talbot Road will no longer be a through route into the city centre. So it will make even less sense having 6 lanes of traffic on the A56 passing through Stretford, for it then reduce to 4 as it reaches Talbot Road. It will likely mean more standing traffic on this section and air pollution getting worse.
It’s a similar story on Kingsway. Lack of decent crossings, no protection for cycling, anti-pedestrian barriers and speeding traffic makes this road somewhere to avoid if you’re on foot or bike. The current road layout is all about prioritising traffic flow rather than connecting the town centre with the rest of the town.
The proposals for Kingsway were one of the better elements of the proposed public realm improvements. Unfortunately, the last council exec decided to proceed with the awful changes to the Chester Road/Edge Lane junction and the removal of the subways first.
The proposals were far from perfect though. Provision for cycling was poor and the proposed crossing at the mall car park entrance had too many stages. But the removal of the dual carriageway and reduction in traffic lanes would be a significant improvement.
All the junctions surrounding the mall are problematic for anyone walking or cycling. Like with the surrounding roads, these all prioritise motor traffic flow over the needs of people walking and cycling.
You’d have hoped that the recent ‘improvements’ to the A56/Edge Lane junction would have led to improvements for walking and cycling, but they’ve just made things worse. Most of the subways were removed and replaced with woefully inadequate surface crossings.
With priority given to motor traffic and no dedicated pedestrian phase, it can now take as long as 5 minutes to cross this junction. You can tell how bad the waits are by the number of people who choose to risk running across 3 lanes of traffic at a time, instead of waiting for the green man. You also see a steady stream of people heading to PureGym from the Lacy Street car park choosing to risk crossing the whole road rather than using the junction.
All of the junctions around the town centre need modernising, with an emphasis on improving convenience and safety for those walking or cycling. This means dedicating more space to people on foot and bike, reducing wait times and introducing dedicated pedestrian phases. Doing this would go a long way in improving safety and attracting more people to the town centre.
9. Increase residential and hotel accommodation
While the town centre isn’t particularly great in the daytime, in the evening it’s even worse. For many, it’s somewhere you avoid at night, and up until recently, there was no reason you’d want to go there after the mall had shut anyway.
The town centre suffers from low levels of social safety and it’s an unwelcoming space in the evening, with very few people to be seen. While this has improved a little with the new night-time businesses that have opened, there’s still some way to go.
One of the reasons for the lack of people is its single-use nature. The town centre’s sole purpose since the mall was built is pretty much just shopping, with a little bit of leisure and no residential. Turning the space into a truly mixed use area with people living and staying this would transform it, particular in the evenings.
With the selective demolition I’ve mentioned, it would free up space to provide retail/leisure units with reasonably high density residential units above, similar to what’s been done in Urmston’s Eden Square. With the inclusion of affordable housing, this could go some way in addressing the demand for new housing in the area.
The location of the town centre makes it an ideal spot for hotels, with the proximity of the motorway, Metrolink, Old Trafford football and cricket stadiums, and easy access to the Manchester city centre and MediaCityUK.
While there’s hotels near to the stadiums, there’s none in the centre of Stretford. The most obvious location for a hotel would be in the Arndale House office block on Chester Road, above Head. It’s easy to see how this could be turned into a Premier Inn, Travelodge or similar.
10. Link up with future plans for Lacy Street and the canal front
Trafford Council have been looking at options for the Lacy Street area for some time, going back to the ill-fated UA92 proposals and inappropriate student tower block. More recently, the council ran sessions to find out what people in Stretford want, though we’ve yet to see the outcome of these sessions or any concrete proposals.
While we don’t yet know what’s to happen on the Lacy Street site, it’s important that the development of the town centre looks at how the Lacy Street site, Essoldo and Edge Lane area can better link up with each other and the mall.
While this is clearly quite challenging, with Chester Road and Edge Lane dissecting the town centre and the subways removed, it’s only through doing this that the town centre will work cohesively as a whole. There’s huge potential here if we’re able to properly link the town centre with the canal front and Metrolink area.
In an article published in The Times (paywall), Bruntwood’s chief Chris Oglesby has given an indication of what their plans are for Stretford Mall and Altrincham’s Stamford Quarter.
Chris Oglesby talked about creating a community experience and ensuring the town centres don’t become identikit places. He also mentioned they’re considering slightly shrinking the amount of retail, while prioritising increasing the number of homes and offices to provide footfall.
There’s not really any more detail in here, but everything Chris Oglesby says sounds positive, which is good news.