It’s the missing piece of a city centre jigsaw puzzle and now after years of decline, could the renamed Leeds Dock be about to have its day? Neil Hudson reports.
Taking rundown waterside areas and injecting new life into them through bars, restaurants,shops and apartments has created whole new quarters in many of Britain’s cities from Manchester to Birmingham.
Yet, there’s been one area of Leeds where similar grand plans have always failed to take off. Clarence Dock may be just a few minutes walk away from the city centre yet it feels a world away from the bustle of say Trinity Leeds. However, not perhaps for much longer.
The plans almost sound too good to be true. A new shuttle bus service for the centre of Leeds connecting to Clarence Dock, several major firms already signed up to move into The Engine (the building formerly occupied by Alea Casino) and two new colleges for the south bank area.
Allied London, the firm which owns the 1.2m sq ft site, has told the Yorkshire Post it is already in talks with a bus company to run the new shuttle bus service and two routes have already been agreed. In addition, water taxis brought over specially from Holland will begin operating in June or July.
“I think there’s still quite a lot of momentum that needs to gather down there,” says Michael Ingall, managing director of Allied London.“It’s quite easy at this stage of any recovery, particularly in the property market, to get ahead of ourselves and I don’t want people to do that.
“The big thing for the South Bank is nothing is going to happen without the infrastructure. Schemes like Trinity, the Hammerson development on Eastgate [which will see John Lewis move to the city] and Leeds Arena are obvious choices for investors, because they’re in the centre but developers are less convinced about places on the edge, so what is needed is money. All the talking needs to be converted into cash.
“The reason our Manchester development was successful was because we pioneered the free bus, we funded 30 per cent of that. The people we spoke to over there understood the power of infrastructure and since that was introduced it’s generated £30m in rates.
“We could do it in Leeds.
“We are forging ahead with our own plans, we are in talks with First about laying on a bus service which I think to begin with will be subsidised but will be along the same lines as the one in Manchester. We have two routes already planned.
“They key is not just standing up and talking about the South Bank but doing something about it. You can build a place, but if people can’t get to it, it will always fail and if they don’t get the infrastructure in place, we’ll be back here in 15 years talking about how desolate it is down there.
“There are schemes like HS2 and Trolleybus but they are a long way off, we cannot wait for them. We’re making a start here but if no-one else is willing to play the game, then the cards go back in the pack.”
Commenting on plans to turn the former Alea Casino building into a bustling new corporate centre, he said: “The casino idea didn’t work but ultimately did we care? No, because that building is going to be the first super-building in Leeds and we are already in talks with companies who want to move into it, big corporates who want an office environment with amenities for staff.
“We’re still on course to do what we said and launch in the summer - there will be a series of water-based events including a theatre and opera on water and we are going to create an outdoor cinema. We’re moving ahead but at the moment we’re rowing the boat on our own.”
Responding to the comments, the Leeds bus company First has insisted it is committed to the scheme.
A spokesman said: “As the leading bus operator in Leeds, we welcome the opportunity to play our part in the transport planning around the New Dock development. We have experience operating local shuttle services and providing route connections around new developments in major towns and cities.
“We are working with developers to look at the best options to give customers reliable and convenient bus services to this important development in Leeds.”
One of the flagship companies rumoured to be interested in moving into the The Engine is BSkyB. The company has said that it has no confirmed plans at this stage, the fact that there seems to be sign of life in a corner of the city so long devoid of any does seem to be cause for at least muted celebration.
Historically important, Clarence Dock was originally used by barges to unload goods, mainly coal, from the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and Aire and Calder Navigation.
Like many waterside areas, when the industry it had been set up to serve decline, it became something of a ghost town. However, in 2001 salvation came in the form of a £250m regeneration project. It included the arrival of the prestigious Royal Armouries, but the wider development suffered for years from a lack of interest and low footfall.
When London Clubs International executive director Roy Ramm said in 2001: “Clarence Dock feels like a forgotten part of the city at the moment - the only thing that’s missing here is the tumbleweed,” he summed up the thoughts of many.
It was three years ago that the site was acquired by Allied London, which unveiled a masterplan for the troubled district, with ambitions to create a water village, landmark buildings, a green space and a workspace hub by 2014.
The plans also included a public space which could be used for concerts, comedy performances, theatre and art displays.
While the development may have had a bit of a false start, Dr Kevin Grady, director of Leeds Civic Trust, has welcomed the plans: “To be successful, Clarence Dock needs to have a lot of people there during the day, so transforming the old Alea building is a great idea. It’s good news for retailers, cafes and restaurants. Allied London have experience in buying distressed retail space and re-animating it. They have some creative ideas about how to do that.
“It’s failed in the past because it has lacked the critical mass of buildings in the surrounding area but now we have Leeds City College in the former print works on Hunslet Road and the College of Building, there will be lots of students very close to the dock. Life coming to the surround area will almost enable the dock to become what it has always wanted to be.
“Another factor which has hindered it was that by the time it got itself up and running, the recession hit and because it has lacked good transport links, parking is difficult or expensive, it has struggled. Now the climate has changed and we’re starting to see renewed interest from investors.”