An ambitious masterplan that aims to put city’s waterfront back on the map

Clarence Dock
Clarence Dock
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Can a new masterplan put the spirit and soul back into Clarence Dock and rejuvenate this struggling Leeds waterfront? Chris Bond reports.

IT’S a sunny Friday afternoon and Clarence Dock ought to be heaving.

But instead of hundreds of families, local residents and tourists milling around and enjoying the glorious sunshine, there are just a scattering of people sitting on benches or strolling along the waterfront. If it had been a wet and miserable Monday in January you could understand why it’s so quiet, but it’s almost the weekend and the school summer holidays have just started.

When Clarence Dock was officially opened in 2008, its owners at the time attracted “cutting edge brands” to help bring a touch of Carnaby Street fashion to Leeds. But four years on and virtually all the fashion shops, including the likes of G-Star, Aspecto and Rock Couture, have gone leaving behind pristine-looking, but empty, spaces.

The area, which is home to the Royal Armouries, underwent a huge redevelopment at the turn of the century and in the last few years has attracted high-profile names including the Alea Casino, Mumtaz and TV chef James Martin’s much-hyped restaurant The Leeds Kitchen.

The residential side of the project has also been a big success thanks to its stunning waterside location – with the lion’s share of the 1,100 apartments occupied by owners and tenants. But walking around the dock with its glittering apartment blocks and offices it’s clear that the retail side of things has bombed. The area feels as sterile as it appears swanky and while it’s not quite a ghost town you can see what Roy Ramm, an executive director of London Clubs International, which owns the Alea Casino, meant when he told the Yorkshire Post last December: “Clarence Dock feels like a forgotten part of the city at the moment. The only thing that’s missing here is the tumbleweed.”

However, the future is starting to look brighter. In January, property developer Allied London bought the 1.2m sq ft Clarence Dock scheme from Lend Lease and last month it unveiled a masterplan which, if it gets approved by Leeds City Council, will create a water village, new landmark buildings, a green space and a workspace hub by 2014. There will also be public space which could be used for concerts, comedy performances, theatre and art displays. As part of the planned revamp, the area will revert to its historic name of New Dock.

“Think bohemian, think Amsterdam, think cool,” said Michael Ingall, chief executive of property developer Allied London, when the plans were announced. This might sound little more than a soundbite, but the fact of the matter is that Clarence Dock urgently needs a radical overhaul if it’s not to become a white elephant.

Mary McConville, property manager with LS1 City Apartments, has worked here for the past four years and has seen the area grow quieter. “There’s nothing to attract people here apart from the Armouries. When the shops first opened it was quite busy, but some of the shops that came here were already in the city centre so people stopped coming. It’s going to waste and it’s such a shame because you can see the potential,” she says.

“The lettings market is really buoyant at the moment and the apartments here are really popular we can’t get enough of them, but there needs to be a reason for people to come down here, it needs a nightlife.”

Laura Stephenson is manager of the All Saints store at Clarence Dock, which is one of the few fashion shops that haven’t packed up and moved out. She would like to see more people coming here. “It’s a lovely area and when the weather’s nice it’s a great place, but the problem is a lot of people don’t know we’re here,” she says.

“There’s a waterfront festival each year which is packed and if we had more things like that it would make a big difference.”

Parking is another issue that needs dealing with. The multi-storey car park is quite expensive and while there is some free parking close by it’s only for two hours at a time which makes it a hassle for those who want to drive. But despite these concerns, the dock clearly has great potential.

Kevin Grady, the director of Leeds Civic Trust, is delighted by what is being proposed. “If I had a tick list of things I would like to see being done then they [Allied London] have ticked all the boxes,” he says.

He points to the firm’s success in changing the fortunes of Manchester’s Spinningfields waterfront district. “They have a good track record in running events and they are able to re-energize spaces and attract lots of people to the waterfront, so it’s very encouraging.”

He believes this is the kind of thing the waterfront needs. “There’s the potential for having open air cinema which would pull in the crowds on a nice day. There’s talk of grassing over the square in front of the Armouries and I believe they’re doing a deal with the Armouries to take over the Tilt Yard, which could provide one of the biggest green areas in the city centre.”

He also supports the idea of calling the area New Dock. “It’s going to revert back to its original name, which we think is a good idea, and the developers are hot and strong on the notion of having more trees and grass, because at the moment there’s a lack of green space there.”

Allied London’s rejuvenation plans are ambitious and, if they succeed, could create as many as 1,000 jobs by turning the area into a hub for “emerging industries.” The hope is that this will supplement, rather than supplant, the thriving area around Holbeck Urban Village. Dr Grady believes it can. “I think modern digital media businesses will be attracted there by the environment,” he says.

He’s impressed, too, by the scope of the vision. “From Monday to Wednesday they are talking about it being a community space with cafés and bars for people who live there and then from Thursday to Sunday the idea is for it to become a destination, a place where people can spend an afternoon and evening.”

But given all this, what does he think went wrong with Clarence Dock in the first place? “There were two main problems. Firstly, was the notion that it could be a high-end shopping centre. Were people going to go there rather than the city centre for eight fashion shops? The answer was ‘no’, because it was too far. Secondly, if you do go down to Clarence Dock there’s not much there, it’s not a big enough magnet. The Royal Armouries is very good but most people in Leeds have been there and on its own it’s not sufficient to generate enough day to day footfall and there just aren’t enough different things for people to do.”

It became “a dead space,” Dr Grady says. “Effectively Leeds riverside and the waterfront is a greatly under used aspect and now it only attracts something like one tenth of the people that could be going there.”

But this could soon change. The city’s waterfront has improved over the past decade with the development of Brewery Wharf and Granary Wharf and he believes a rejuvenated Clarence Dock would make a huge difference. “We have this whole chain from the Holbeck Urban Village and Clarence Dock could become a magnet that pulls the area together. The waterfront should be the people’s playground and when people talk about Leeds we want them to say, ‘if you go to Leeds you must visit the waterfront’ – and I think they will.”

A HISTORY OF THE LEEDS WATERFRONT

The city’s waterfront consists of the River Aire, which runs through the city centre, and the east end of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

In 1700 the rivers Aire and Calder were made navigable from Leeds to Wakefield, helping to make Leeds an inland port.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal was authorised Parliament in 1770 and completed in 1816.

The combined waterway system, extending from Liverpool to Hull, was the 
M62 of its day and gave 
access by water to Europe and the US.

The creation of these waterways was crucial to the economic success of Leeds before the railways arrived.