It’s the missing piece of the Leeds city centre jigsaw puzzle and now after years of decline, the renamed Leeds Dock could be about to have its day.
It sounds almost too good to be true. A new shuttle bus service for the centre of Leeds connecting to Clarence Dock, water taxis ferrying customers, 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.
But it all could happen and some of the plans are well under way.
Allied London, the firm which owns the 1.2m sq ft site, has told the Yorkshire Evening 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 to that, water taxis brought over specially from Holland will begin operating in June or July. Michael Ingall, managing director of Allied London, is cautiously optimistic about the plans.
“I think there’s still quite a lot of momentum that needs to gather down there. 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 we were so successful in Manchester was we pioneered the free bus, we funded 30 per cent of that.
“The people we spoke to on the local authority 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.
“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.
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 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.”
Commenting on rumours BSkyB were interested in moving into The Engine, a spokeswoman for the company said: “We are a growing business with several operations in Leeds and continue to review opportunities to consolidate our teams but have no confirmed plans at this stage.” Architect David Lumb, from Leeds Sustainable Development Group, said: “Investors are looking to invest. That’s where Allied London have been very brave but they have experience of doing this elsewhere. It’s a mountain they have to climb but they are climbing it.”
A First spokesman said: “As the leading bus operator in Leeds, First welcomes 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.
“First are working with developers to look at the best options to give customers reliable and convenient bus services to this important development in Leeds.”
The bright history and future of Leeds Dock
Historically, Clarence Dock was used by barges to unload goods, mainly coal, from the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and Aire and Calder Navigation.
In 2001, it was part of a £250m regeneration project including the prestigious Royal Armouries but the 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 was not the first.
Clarence Dock was bought in January 2011 by property developer Allied London.
They planned to take the 1.2m sqft scheme to new heights and 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.
Dr Kevin Grady, director of Leeds Civic Trust, 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.”