As high streets across south Manchester have flourished in recent years, Sale 's centre has languished - despite the town’s transport links, attractive housing stock and enviable schools.
But now the Trafford town's sixties shopping precinct - for so long a picture of high street decline - is in the midst of the most ambitious regeneration project since it was built.
The idea is to return Sale town centre to the days when it bustled with independent businesses - but also adapt it to 21st century, post-Covid lifestyles.
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The regeneration project, which saw the precinct renamed 'Stanley Square' earlier this year, has attracted a crop of new cafes, bars and independent businesses to the square since 2019 - and many more are coming.
There are rumours - as yet unconfirmed - that a celebrity chef wants to open in the town.
They would follow Sugo, the celebrated local chain who will open their third pasta restaurant here in November, and a new day and night food hall, from the people behind Stretford Food Hall and Ancoats General Store, set to open this summer in a former Poundland.
The food hall will have room to seat 150 diners and an outdoor terrace, and will neighbour independent businesses on the square like toy shop Josh and Nelly, and bike shop Folk Like You.
The goal is that Sale will have a modern version of a classic British high street - with a butcher, a baker, a greengrocer, and even a cinema, without being dependent on big name anchor tenants who can smother independent locals.
Michael Brown, founder and director of Altered Space, the square's landlord and the chair of the Sale Regeneration Committee, imagines Sale like a mini-Manchester city centre - somewhere where people can work in offices, shop, live and socialise without having to travel.
The redevelopment has become more noticeable in the past month.
The canopies which have overhung the precinct since it was built are being removed, and the gateway to the centre on School Road will be pulled down.
There are plans to convert the 2nd floor above the commercial units into 7,000 sq ft of office space and demolish some sections of the square’s south side to make way for a pair of residential towers.
"The principle behind that was people living in the town centre, which links back to the heritage, when people would have lived above shops," Michael says.
"The idea being that you would work there, you would go down for a coffee, you would spend your money at the shops that are there, do your shopping before you go home."
The land which The Square stands was once occupied by a residential street called Stanley Grove but in late 1960s the council acquired it to develop what was then called 'Six Acres' shopping centre.
The Edwardian terraces were replaced by the brutalist concrete structures of a post-war shopping precinct.
Back then, the centre was defined by a bustling indoor market and independent local businesses.
Over the decades it went through different owners, different name changes and different redevelopment schemes, but by the 2010s it had controversially lost its market and was a hub for chain discount stores, struggling to compete with the likes of the Trafford Centre and the rise of online shopping.
"It was quite run down, fragmented - closed shops," Paul Meehan said.
He's the owner of Time for Bed, a furniture and bed store which he opened on the centre’s Market Walk in 2011.
Before that, he had owned a store in London, but harboured a certain sentimentality for Sale, having grown up there during the centre’s post-60s heyday.
"I remember it was always a busy town, it had its indoor market, not long since developed," he said.
""When I moved back in 1999, I always fancied a shop back in Sale because it’s where I grew up.
"We opened more out of being tied to the place, rather than from a business point of view.
"Even when I spoke to friends about my shop in Sale, they'd say, 'well, there's nothing to go into Sale for.’ It was depressing.
"(But now) there's going to be one of everything in the town: a butcher, a baker, a greengrocer."
The regeneration project harks back to the idea of a community-led, mixed use hub of independent business; evocative of old-fashioned high streets and town centres.
The irony of this - stepping back to go forward - isn’t lost on Michael Brown, the centre’s current landlord. Brown said part of the goal is to get the square 'more back to what it was, and what it should have been for many years'.
Michael and his team delved into the archives with a local historian, Michael Riley. The idea is that the latest redevelopment will take inspiration from Sale's past - from before the shopping precinct was even built.
Earlier this year it was renamed Stanley Square. That's a reference to the street that was knocked down for the precinct to be built in the 60s - Stanley Grove - which itself is believed to have been named after a young Victorian, Stanley Heywood, who died in tragic circumstances.
"When you look back and you see the pictures of the old town and where the centre used to be; you see it used to be lovely old red brick houses - Edwardian or Victorian.
"We were trying to get under the skin of Sale when trying to redevelop stuff, to get people on side," he said.
"And you didn't understand it as much until you started to take a look at those pictures. It was a beautiful town - it still is a beautiful town - but it was really beautiful then."
Brown had previously worked for commercial landlords Maloneview,who owned the shopping centre from 2005, but bought them out after they were dissolved in 2018., and formed his own company, Altered Space, in 2019 with partner Mark Rebbeck.
"We're a small company, trying to be more considerate and discerning developers,” Michael said.
"We knew the asset; we knew what the strengths were.”
The company collaborated with local designer David Sedgewick of Studio DBD, appealing to the community through social media, brightening it up with posters.
They then introduced a pop-up initiative and a makers’ market.
The iconic Manchester architectural firm, SimpsonHaugh, who are behind the Beetham Tower, were commissioned to work on the square’s redevelopment, led by Sale-born architect Nick Fleming.
Units have been stripped down to the brickwork and the ceilings whitewashed to pull in trendy independents rather than chain discounters.
"The supermarkets gobble up a lot of products, that then makes it difficult for independents to trade.
"We tried to downsize units, making them affordable for independents," Michael said.
With hopes that more cafe-bars, restaurants and a cinema will come to the square, the aim is to diversify away from the tired, monotonous feel of a precinct in decline.
"If you speak to any developer now, or a council, what they're trying to do is move away from too much reliance on retail.
"You're trying to bring in multiple uses," he said.
One stand-out tenant for the centre has been Groceries & Beer, from the Store Group, owners of Ancoats General Store and Stretford Food Hall.
Diane Smith, who has been centre manager since 1998, describes Groceries & Beer as 'the catalyst for the major changes'.
When asked what she would have predicted of the centre’s trajectory in, say, 2015, she gestures a nose-diving jet with her hand.
“No one new was coming,” she said.
“(Now,) we've got people queueing up to come on here - unbelievable - I've never seen anything like it."
Groceries & Beer deciding to take a unit on the square was welcomed as a sign by other operators that Sale’s redevelopment was serious.
"Mital was very important," Michael Brown says, referring to Mital Morar, owner of Store Group.
"People see him going in and say: 'right, I want to be there'"
Spending time in the centre’s management office gives a clear indication of the centre’s burgeoning popularity.
Between finding various gizmos for tenants to check their water meters with and working through invoices with her successor Tony - she retires in November - Smith has had to start turning away inquiring tenants. They have a backlog of prospective business owners vying for units on the square.
"It is because the landlords have taken this leap of faith and given these people these opportunities," she says.
Abby Harman and Jonny Walkingshaw, who run the centre’s bicycle shop, Folk Like You, agree.
"So often, commercial property is owned by a huge pension fund for whom the occupancy rate, the greatest rent yield they can produce, overrides everything else," Jonny says.
"In a way that is what has killed shopping centres in Britain."
But Altered Space taking a more community-led, familial approach to the development has given independents what Jonny calls a ‘cushion’ of support.
"This mall is effectively owned by a family, and they're determined to make it a venue.
"It's not a vanity exercise and it's not because it's a low-risk strategy, it's quite the opposite."
It also appears that the centre is benefiting from the lifestyle changes brought about by lockdown.
"There's somebody we were talking to yesterday, about his organic fruit and veg shop, which is pretty old-school,” Michael says.
“(And) one of the guys has given up his career which he's been in for ages and just wanted out of the rat race.
"Those things are quite nice to support."
"If there are any positives (to the lockdown) it’s that people have found they do have a town centre and that there is something interesting here," Diane Smith adds.
The square being pedestrianised also meant it was ready-made to meet the demand for outdoor seating space.
"We're so lucky in the sense that Covid has made people want units with outdoor space, and we're able to provide that," Michael says.
All this sets the scheme in good stead to meet its key aims, one of which is to develop a dynamic night-time economy.
Groceries & Beer are set to move out of the mall and around the corner into a bigger space, where they’ll open what Brown describes as 'pretty much Stretford Food Hall 2.0', which will serve as the lynchpin of Sale’s night-time economy.
"He (Mital) will have indoor-outdoor dining there - nice bi-fold doors and things like that."
The unit left behind will be taken over by Sugo pasta kitchen, making it their third restaurant, with outposts already in Altrincham and Ancoats.
"It’s a bit of a juxtaposition but, we're trying to build a night-time economy, but at the same we're trying to bring in family uses as well - to get the daytime activated," Michael says.
The Altered Space team made a point of visiting the square and surveying the progress regularly before the pandemic struck.
"We've tried to be hands-on […] we were there most weeks, even though we're based in Belfast.
"On a project like that at an early stage, people want to see that you really care about it."
Brown also chairs the Sale regeneration committee, which focuses on the square's surroundings, rather than the square exclusively.
This is something he believes helps reduce chances, or perceptions, of insularity on the part of the developers.
"What I didn't want was people accusing us and saying: 'Oh it’s all about you and Stanley Sq.'
"So, we think by fixing the town and by helping to improve the town as a whole, the value of our asset will improve anyway."
Outside the management office is a miniature rendition of Sale town centre - echoing the one made in the 60’s for the first redevelopment - encased in a glass box.
The model town is all white, even the model trees look dusted with snow, apart from the modelled Stanley Square development.
Passers-by stop and interrogate the model, mumbling questions to each other, sometimes knocking on the office door for someone to point out what will be where.
While developers and businesses are full of enthusiasm, there is scepticism in the town.
A boy and a girl, both in their teens, stop to peer into the glass box. They look baffled by the artist’s impression.
“Is that what it’s going to look like?” The boy asks.
The girl, without missing a beat: “Pft. Yeah right.”
Two older men stand, eyes squinted and flicking between the model and the picture of the artist’s impression behind it.
“They’ve been going on about this for years," one says.
His friend replies. “Well, it’s getting closer.”
The ambitious redevelopment plans were approved by Trafford council back in 2019, in spite of objections from councillors who are concerned about the development's size and affect on locals.
In March 2019, the MEN reported on fears surrounding these issues during the development's application and approval process.
But Abby Harman, owner of Stanley Square bike shop Folk Like You is confident it will be a success.
"There are lots of people who will complain, but the vast majority of people will say 'We've been waiting, we've been patiently waiting,' and its finally happening," she says.