VIDEO + GALLERY | Inside the former Manchester Debenhams

Take a sneak peek inside the grade two-listed Rylands Building near Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, which is being transformed by developer AM Alpha into a modern office, retail, and leisure complex.

AM Alpha’s vision of sleek offices, shops, and restaurants is still a way off – with main contractor Russell WBHO still at work in the soft demolition phase of the project.

Place North West was invited to take a tour of the building, where you can still find traces of its past as a Debenhams – including signage, mannequins, and escalators.

The space is very much a construction zone, with much of the building being gutted to make way for the new plans. However, many heritage features are being retained, including an Art Deco lift, the wood-panelled former manager’s office, and gorgeous stained-glass windows.

Work is set to complete on the Rylands metamorphosis in 2025. Today, you can only get hints of what the future will hold. Thankfully, there are CGIs by Jeffrey Bell Architects, which designed AM Alpha’s vision, that give a better look.

Rylands Building CGIs, AM Alpha, c Jeffrey Bell Architects

This CGI gives a hint of what the Rylands Building will look like post 2025. Credit: Jeffrey Bell Architects

The Rylands Building is an icon in Manchester, having been part of the background of Piccadilly Gardens since it was built in 1932 as a textile warehouse for Rylands and Sons. Located off Market Street, it would not become a department store until 1957 when Debenhams (then known as Paulden’s) took over the building.

Paul Hodgkiss, senior project manager at AM Alpha, is not taking the responsibility of breathing new life into such a treasured building lightly.

“The store was an iconic centrepiece of Manchester, so everyone is committed to making this a success,” Hodgkiss said.

“There’s pride and enjoyment instilled in all of us working on Rylands to make sure we do the city proud with this.”

When his team finishes with the building, he is confident that it will be as popular as before.

“If you speak to anyone in Manchester, they recognise and identify with it,” Hodgkiss said. “They may call it the ‘Debenhams Building’ now, but they will soon call it the Rylands and know it well.”

Rylands Building under construction, AM Alpha, c PNW

Soft demolition in progress at Rylands Building. Credit: PNW

AM Alpha is aiming to achieve a BREEAM rating of Excellent for the finished Rylands, as well as a NABERS five-star accreditation. Sustainability efforts are also being taken during the soft demolition, with the developer seeking to reuse and redistribute much of what was left in the building when Debenhams shut in 2021.

Old kitchens were given to charity, existing light fittings were recycled, and an old diesel generator has been sent to a West Yorkshire rail museum.

AM Alpha is also keeping several heritage items on hand for future use by tenants – such as staircases, panelling, and cupboard doors.

“They are being carefully taken away and stored by our contractors,” Hodgkiss said.

“They may be used at a later date as a nod to the building’s heritage – for example, if a company takes some office space and wants to take ownership of these items to celebrate the building’s history, they will have the option to. We want to bring these back into use in the future.

“One thing that the construction industry is now understanding is that by reducing the amount of what they are buying, companies can reduce the waste of a project,” he continued.

Engineer Max Fordham is advising on sustainability, net zero, and M&E for the project. Woolgar Hunter is the structural engineer.

Barker Proudlove is the agent for the leisure and retail part of Rylands, while OBI is the agent for the workspace elements.

Your Comments

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Missing a trick by not sticking a Berlin style club on the roof

By Ray Von

It’s amazing that so much heritage has remained despite the building’s use as a department store for years and despite it having a ‘modern’ interior previously. Russells are perfect for this job on the back of their amazing transformation of the Municipal Buildings. Look forward to seeing this one take shape.

By Anonymous

Wonderful building and glad that the restoration is underway. It is of course officially the Rylands building but pretty sure that is going to cause some confusion with Rylands library. For a generation it has mostly been known as just Debenhams. Still everything must change and this change is actually welcome.

By Anonymous

Love the underground bicycle parking

By Anonymous

300k sq ft more workspace? Is there really the demand? I’d be tempted to hold off until the council had sorted out the twin horrors of Piccadilly Gardens and the Arndale Centre.

By Anonymous

In a word: fantastic.

By Tom

Until the council have sorted the Arndale? Anonymous 0819, you’d hold off hold restoring the building until the council have done what precisely to the Arndale? You’d be waiting forever, they don’t own the Arndale. Bizarre comment.

By Anonymous

Excellent stuff. Manchester isn’t really renowned for looking after its heritage – quite the opposite. But this looks great.

By Sceptic

@Anon 10:10 the council may not own the Arndale but the LPA have statutory powers to shape private investment. It’s disappointing if not surprising that they’re trying to do things in such a piecemeal way. Large private investments such as Rylands should be tied into an over arching regeneration strategy, underpinned by a Strategic Regeneration Framework document that sets out a clear and ambitious vision for the whole area defined by Piccadilly Gardens, Market Street, High Street, Piccadilly Plaza and the Arndale Centre because at present the area is a bit of a dump, is underperforming and a stain on the reputation of the city. We’ve moved on a long way from the 90s era post-bomb redevelopment and its high time this whole area was looked at again.

By Anonymous

The Arndale is an embarrassment

By Anonymous

The Arndale is completely irrelevant to a positive story about the redevelopment of this wonderful building. Try and accept a glass half full story, it’s not all glass knocked over.

By Calndan

Doesn’t care about heritage. Just spent almost 600m on Town Hall, extension and library. Has found new life for Debenhams Kendals and Mackle Mayor. I’d say that’s caring for heritage

By What?

Yes anon 11-20 that is the tried and tested route which has regenerated large parts of Manchester. But it needs private investment which won’t be taking place in this space for the next decade. You can write the best SRF or whatever in the world but in a context where it relies of private equity it is nothing more than a pipe dream

By Obviously

Debenhams building is on the major retail street in the city which has not one pavement cafe like you would get in any other major European city.Tbe council and developers have no idea how to plan a successful urban environment for the people of the city.

By Fred Mount

Fred 1.52 needs to try a bit harder. There will be active uses on the ground floor. So before you criticise the council and developers put some effort in and find out what is actually happening

By Researcher

Rooftop bar here would be quality

By Anonymous

Obviously @1:46 No, a SRF encompassing the Arndale Centre would not depend on leveraging private investment 10 years hence. Depending on your chosen objectives it could start to have an impact almost immediately following adoption. The centre’s owners are continually reconfiguring units and making short-to-medium term investments which, if contrary to the principles established in the SRF, could not proceed. Thus, by increment, you start to create leverage and conditions to bring forward more radical change. An approach along these lines would only be possible if the Framework encompassed a wider area that aligns other major investment and redevelopment opportunities such as Rylands, Picc Plaza and other sites adjacent sites.

As it is, without this strategic intent, we’re looking at another 10-15 cycle of peacemeal investment followed by blight and decline.

By Anonymous

Pardon me but when did this become a debate about the Arndale Centre? The sands have shifted so much on this positive news story about Debenhams to why isn’t the council sorting out the Arndale centre. Debenhams is great imho and the Arndale needs to be much better but hopefully everyone who reads this site will understand that there are issues around high st retailing and the Arndale hasn’t been immune from this

By Focus

Hey folks, as a few commenters have now mentioned – we’ve gotten rather off track in the discussion. Please keep future comments on topic – that being the former Debenhams, not what we would like to see done to the Arndale. Thanks.

By Julia Hatmaker

If I may be so bold Julia anon 9.46 seems to be under the impression that small changes at the arndale needs the Council’s permission when they dont. Life is not that simple. Its an Important correction so I trust you will indulge me.

By Correction

    You get a pass this time, correction!

    By Julia Hatmaker

Great news that something is going to happen to keep the building looking great but office space? Better to get a few affordable flats added to the development to go towards the 20,000 housing deficit the council keeps bleating on about as an excuse to ruin the character of local towns. People love living in Manchester and it would provide more permanent customers for the cities businesses. The way things are going the only way to shop local will be to live in the city where physical shops actually still exist and are valued by MCC. We then travel to the suburbs for our health care, schools etc. Sorry I’ve wandered off the main point … i’m not sure we need office space (sadly) but we do need housing so why not routinely use a part of beautiful buildings that are standing empty alongside new builds?

By Michelle Haller

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