Queen Square was the late nineties mixed-use trailblazer that kick-started Liverpool city centre’s regeneration. More than 660,000 square feet of the new, the shiny and the beautifully refurbished. It was also the platform for FCH’s growth and its emergence as one of the UK’s leading hotel design practices. On our 25th birthday, company chairman Paul Falconer reflects on the project that started it all.
There are many still around who remember Queen Square as the centre of Liverpool’s wholesale provisions trade. A bustling, open-cry exchange of the exotic and the everyday, from dragon fruits to the humble spud, with greengrocers from all corners of the city competing for the freshest and best.
And then came the Shankland Plan. Streets in the sky; sweeping roadways paying homage to the motor car; and a bus gyratory that felt awfully modern at the time. This workaday but varied Georgian square was swept away and, as with many urban interventions of that time, it was to enjoy a relatively brief shelf-life.
Come the early nineties, the square was gone and the remaining site had morphed into a windswept surface car park. Bus fumes, litter and abandoned ‘streets in the sky’ provided a grim welcome to visitors stepping off the trains at Lime Street station, over the road.
Something had to be done, and it was. The square’s redevelopment became the centre-point of the five year City Challenge regeneration programme, which supported its private sector backers with a mix of cash, political heft, and vocal support when others briefly cut up rough (more of which anon).
The private backing, from Peter Hynd’s Neptune Developments, was key. A local investor and developer, he understood the city’s potential more than most and drove the project through with the energy and persistence that is his trademark.
Peter appointed us to deliver the scheme’s masterplan and most of its constituent parts and it was transformative. We were ten strong at the time and by the project’s end the practice had more than doubled and we’d demonstrated that we could deliver award-winning work of genuine scale.
And whilst the scheme’s genesis was the transformation of the former Liverpool Daily Post & Echo offices on Victoria Street into a modern civic hub for Liverpool City Council, it was the permeability of the overall masterplan that made it work so well. It still does, of course, as the packed restaurant tables in the sun trap of the reinstated Queen Square attest.
There were some interesting dust-ups along the way. No project of this scale in any city would sail through either unopposed or without the need for a Henry Kissinger figure to sooth fractious souls. Enter John Flamson, the urbane and witty chief of City Challenge, to whom Liverpool owes untold debt. He would later head up the second phase of the Objective One programme, the EU’s regeneration fund for Merseyside which would build spectacularly on Queen Square’s legacy.
The Liverpool Hoteliers Association were particularly aggrieved at the notion of new, shiny competition in the form of the square’s four-star Swallow Hotel. They saw the public funding for the wider project as a subsidy and opposed the new property via a well-organised lobby. With Flamson’s diplomacy they lost the day, and we were able to design our first large-scale city centre hotel. It was to prove the foundation for our emergence as one of the UK’s leading hotel designers and all three of our studios are now delivering hotels across the country.
Projects of the scale of Queen Square were what I returned to Liverpool to do, and the faith of our clients has seen us deliver many more. The project saw us tick so many boxes: from hotels to leisure, Grade A new-build offices and on to listed building refurbishments of the highest quality. More broadly, I’d argue that Queen Square was in at the start of large-scale developer-led regeneration in provincial cities, demonstrating to the public sector that partnering with a visionary and capable private sector could address a wide range of regeneration challenges and opportunities.
Reflecting now from the standpoint of almost 80 colleagues I genuinely don’t know how we did it, with so few staff! But we did, and to a very high quality, too. Teamwork, commitment and – dare I say it – relative youth will all have played their part and we remain incredibly proud of our role in the square’s transformation.
As a footnote, it led to the project of which I am most proud: the redevelopment of the precinct around Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral and the delivery of its stunning processional steps. Surveying the city from atop the flight it’s evident just how far Liverpool has come in our 25 years. So has our practice and there is insufficient room here to thank the many colleagues, clients, professional peers, and supply chain who played their part. Thank you all most sincerely for your support. Here’s to the next 25 years.