On the surface of things, Crusader Mill looks like your run-of-the-mill construction site – a sight many will be familiar with around Manchester these days.
Silver scaffolding criss-crosses its grade II-listed, 180-year-old brickwork exterior. The windows remain without glass. The only immediate signs of life are those of builders working away.
In the next year, Capital & Centric will complete the transformation of Crusader Mill to become 201 apartments.
But in the meantime, the community spirit of the new development is already blossoming, even if the future residents don’t have their own front doors yet.
Several spaces within the building have been given over to carefully selected local businesses, and now Crusader Mill is hiding three of the city’s coolest bars, and an intimate independent cinema.
Follow the bright pink arrows painted onto the rough concrete floor and you’ll find yourself in a fairly anonymous-looking staircase – but travel upwards and each floor reveals a new treasure.
This is where you’ll find Yerrrr Bar, a 200 capacity music venue and event space owned by ex-The Fall manager Ed Blaney.
Track Brewing Co. is here too, with a popular, plant-filled taproom selling beers on site plus bottles and cans to take away.
Tucked away in the roof space, and the latest to join the huge mill building, is Chapeltown Picture House, a cinema showing retro films with £5 tickets and hosting VR gaming experiences.
Adding further beer to the party is Squawk Brewing Co., who will be opening their own tap room alongside the cinema.
Jason Bailey, director of both Grub and Chapeltown Picture House, says: “The location’s amazing, you can’t get any closer to Piccadilly station.
“The building itself is a challenge – it’s getting quite warm up there!
“But that’s what we do, we go and put things into places that they were never designed to be, like gig venues in railway arches and street food in abandoned places.
“It does feel like this has become a real hotspot. We’re the last ones in, but now it feels like we can shout about the building as a whole.
“It feels like people can sort of mingle between the floors. I can’t think of anywhere else in Manchester that’s like that.”
Bailey and his team have a long-standing friendship with Squawk Brewing Co., and tapped them up to provide the beers for his newest project.
“Their brewery’s just a little bit on the wrong end of the Piccadilly beer mile,” he continues.
“Their beer’s gone under appreciated and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be regarded as a world-class beer, so it’s good to get them closer.”
That supportive community that Bailey refers to didn’t exist at the end of last year though, when Track first pitched up in the starkly industrial space.
Christian Sinclair is the taproom manager at Track, brought over from his previous role at Marble Beers.
“Initially a lot of our crowd was just people who know us through beer,” he says.
“But we’ve had more and more people who live in the area popping in after seeing our A board outside. It’s a cool space! Our beer’s reasonably priced and it’s a nice atmosphere.
“With Public Source upstairs who had an exhibition on, there were about 150 people in here drinking and most of them hadn’t heard of us. That’s why it works to have all these other things in the mill.
“Everyone’s helping each other and the same will happen with Chapeltown Picture House.”
I ask Christian if there are any challenges with being in a constantly evolving building, where the sound of drills and hammers often drowns out the music.
Before he can answer, a plaque spontaneously drops off the wall.
“It was just an empty room with a few piles of rubble,” he says, ignoring the plaque still on the floor.
“Me and Sam Dyson, the owner, we spent about a week just sweeping and mopping.
“It’s such an interesting thing to work on because it’s always adapting. You notice little things every week and there’s a lot of problem-solving but it can be really rewarding.”
Salford-born record producer, musician, owner of Salford Music Festival and former manager of The Fall Ed Blaney owns Yerrrr Bar – with four Rs, as he reminds me several times.
Ed Blaney (Image: Manchester Evening News)
He first came to join the Crusader Mill development through an unlikely channel – a bit of a falling-out with Capital & Centric.
“I was part of the opposition, I was against them building houses in Buile Hill Park,” he says. “But we came together in a nice way!
“Tim Heatley [co-founder of Capital & Centric], he knows my background and he said, ‘Look there’s a space there, cheap rent.’
“It was amazing, considering how we’d met.”
Now that the bar is open for business, it hosts art exhibitions, spoken word nights, football match screenings and intimate gigs.
“Once people find out where it is, they’re fine,” says Ed. “It’s only about a three-minute walk from Piccadilly station. They walk in and they’re like ‘whoa! This is cool’.
Yerrrr bar hosts events such as spoken word and footie match screenings (Image: Manchester Evening News)
“It’s really exciting here. I’m honoured to be given a chance and a space to be do what I want.
“There aren’t many property developers who actually are concerned about community and arts.”
It does seem unusual, for a developer to give independent businesses raw spaces like this when there is still so much work to be done on the site.
Tim Heatley admits that this wasn’t the easy option. He says: “The easy thing to do would be to say, ‘It’s too complicated, it’s too hard.’
“But we decided it was worthwhile. We want people to be part of the regeneration, and part of the story. There’s a whole generation who want to say they were here first and be part of the city’s history.
“I feel like a lot of lazy marketers will just slap a bee on something, or a Hacienda colour scheme, but that’s not what we’re about.
“We see Manchester as having to compete on an international basis and we want to support the next generation of Tony Wilsons .
“Yes, everything we do is about selling apartments, but there’s a way to do that that helps everyone involved. The health of the city and of the people who actually live here is important to us.”
That’s why Crusader Mill’s apartments are being built to be owner-occupied properties rather than sold off to overseas investors.
Although incredibly central and with a few clusters of residential buildings, the area behind Piccadilly – which Tim refers to as Piccadilly East – is sparsely populated.
“It got leapfrogged by Ancoats,” he says. “It’s been unloved and ignored and left to do its own thing.
“But we want to be pioneering. We’re not just replicating what anyone else has done.
“We always wanted to hold some spaces back for people who wanted to do cool things for the community, and we’ve spent a long time looking for people who could benefit from having a platform.
“We want to give people the city they deserve.”
You can find Track Brewing Co.’s taproom, Yerrrr Bar, Chapeltown Picture House and Squawk Brewing Co.’s taproom all within Crusader Mill on Chapeltown Street.
Source: Manchester Evening News