Built by the Manchester Ship Canal Company, Salford Docks was the larger of two sections that made up Manchester Docks; the other being Pomona Docks to the east. They were opened in 1894 by Queen Victoria and spanned 120 acres (49 ha) of water and 1,000 acres (400 ha) of land. At their height the Manchester Docks were the third busiest port in Britain, but after containerisation and the limit placed on vessel size on the Manchester Ship Canal, the docks declined during the 1970s. They closed in 1982, resulting in the loss of 3000 jobs.
In 1983 Salford City Council acquired parts of the docks covering 220 acres (90 ha) from the Manchester Ship Canal Company with the aid of a derelict land grant. The area was rebranded as Salford Quays and redevelopment by Urban Waterside began in 1985 under the Salford Quays Development Plan. Faced with major pollution issues from quality of the water in the ship canal, dams were built to isolate the docks, after which water quality was improved by aerating it using a compressed air mixing system. Within two years the quality was sufficient to introduce 12,000 coarse fish, which have thrived in the environment. Water quality is monitored fortnightly by scientists from APEM, the Manchester University Aquatic Pollution and Environmental Monitoring Unit, and the improved habitat has been recognised by the Angling Foundation and the Institute of Fisheries Management.
Between 1986 and 1990 the infrastructure of the docks was modified to create an internal waterway network. Roads and bridges were built and a promenade along the waterfront constructed and landscaped. Moorings and watersports facilities were provided and a railway swing bridge moved to cross Dock 9. A hotel, cinema, housing, offices were built on Piers 5 and 6 followed by more developments on Pier 7. Public funding and private investment totalled around £280 million by the early 1990s.
Early in the planning stages for redevelopment of Salford Quays in 1988, potential was recognised for a landmark arts venue, the Salford Quays Centre for the Performing Arts, which became known as the Lowry Project in 1994. It had secured £64 million in funding by 22 February 1996.
The Lowry stands at the end of Pier 8, largely surrounded by the waters of the Manchester Ship Canal. Designed by James Stirling and Michael Wilford, it opened on 28 April 2000 and houses the 1,730 seat Lyric theatre, the 466 seat Quays theatre, studio spaces and 17,330 square feet (1,610 m2) of gallery space. There are cafes, bars and a restaurant at the south-western end of the building. The centre is associated with L. S. Lowry, and houses a unique collection of his work.