Just what has revived the fortunes of Liverpool?

LAN Oct Liverpool

LAN Oct Liverpool - Credit: Archant

Martin Pilkington investigates the renaissance of Liverpool

Liverpool ONE, South John Street Photo by Mark McNulty

Liverpool ONE, South John Street Photo by Mark McNulty - Credit: Archant

Since the 1980s Liverpool has changed radically, and it’s not unkind to say it needed to. The process begun back then by the Tate’s arrival and the regeneration of the Albert Dock took another huge stride forward when Liverpool ONE opened in May 2008.

Involved in that project from the start was Miles Dunnett, a director for the Duke of Westminster’s Grosvenor Estates which developed the site. ‘We knew the city from doing things here in the past, and obviously the family is local. But we looked at what the city was about and came up with a scheme that was very much learning about and using and expressing and connecting the existing assets by being open and tying things together.’

Having considered a traditional ‘white box’ mall, the local authority chose the open scheme for the 42-acre site, and it has clearly worked. ‘Before Liverpool ONE opened five years ago, the city ranked 13th as a UK shopping destination. It now ranks at number five,’ says Chris Bliss, estate manager of Liverpool ONE. ‘And Liverpool ONE stores continue to perform on average 26 per cent ahead of other UK stores.’

But ambling along the bustling walkways, its success is manifest in other more atmospheric ways. Chester’s Rows spring to mind in the multi-level stretch; York’s snickelways in narrower spots; New York in the multitude of sidewalk eateries and

Barcelona’s Ramblas suggested by those just out for a stroll along the widest routes, and by the annoying human statues.

The architecture may be modern, but by using different materials and a small army of architects the slabby sameness of some shopping centres has been avoided. ‘We try not to call it a shopping centre because that does build expectations of a covered mall, and we try to say we’re part of the city,’ says Mr Dunnett. So you wander past or into stores like M&S just outside Liverpool ONE without realising you’ve crossed any border.

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‘We’ve tried to connect with other parts of the city - and as part of that there are certain vistas that have been kept clear – so from parts of the scheme you can see the Liver Birds and the cathedral,’ says Miles. ‘It’s those touches, which commercially don’t bring much, that for the character of a city evolving over time are really quite important.’

Anyone who hasn’t visited Liverpool ONE should ditch pre-conceived ideas of a concrete mall walled-in hell. The site is open, airy – there’s even a five-acre park high above the floor level – and very much alive. The street entertainment on this sunny autumn day including an excellent student jazz group complete with energetic boom box artiste.

‘There is that thing in the local character of wanting to be a bit different, show off a bit in a way, and there are things in Liverpool now that people can point to and say this is what we are about,’ says Miles. As the unseasonal sun beats down that character is plain at every corner, where upright pianos open to all are having their ivories tinkled - with varying levels of skill - by players between 16 and 80. ‘It’s nice to bring some light-heartedness, and it gives some extra atmosphere to the area,’ he adds.

The development hasn’t changed Liverpool, so much as tapped into its energy and character, and maybe allowed people to kill the negative clichés. Max Steinberg, chief executive of Liverpool Vision, says: ‘Liverpool ONE is the retail success story of a generation. Like the city itself, Liverpool ONE has a unique and friendly atmosphere, with an ever changing programme of activities and events to make it stand apart from other retail destinations.’

In spite or because of that energy, it’s easy to spend a few hours doing not very much here - though check your parking charges! – an espresso while reading the paper, browsing in the giant Waterstones, dragging teenage dependents away from fashion stores. You forget you are in Liverpool, then the views and vibe remind you, though it is happily not the Liverpool of a generation ago.

‘I love speaking to people who are unfamiliar with the area, or have moved away,’ concludes Chris Bliss. ‘The most common reaction among these people is that Liverpool ONE has exceeded their expectations, or blown away preconceptions they had about the city. To be honest, this is the greatest praise we can hear. Liverpool is a very different city to how it was 10 or 20 years ago, and we’re very proud to be a part of that.’

10 more reasons to visit

Liverpool One has 42 acres, 30 buildings designed by 26 architects, 169 shops, bars and restaurants and over 3,000 parking spaces. Here’s another ten reasons for going

1. Mendips, John Lennon’s childhood home, and 20 Forthlin Road, that of Paul McCartney, interesting for anyone over 30 at least

2. The Tate Gallery, culture, atmosphere and no little style

3. Speke Hall, for another historic side of the city

4. Mersey Ferry. Bet you can’t stop the first line playing in your head now

5. Aintree Racecourse for the Grand National

6. Merseyside Maritime Museum incorporating the International Slavery Museum, involving and eye-opening

7. The Bluecoat Galleries – interesting exhibitions, superb building

8. Liverpool Playhouse: great drama, world renowned

9. Anfield and Goodison (no bias here) for passionate football

10. Chinatown – shops, food, and the biggest Chinese arch outside China itself