Central Leeds: New name and new dawn for troubled Clarence Dock

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Clarence Dock has struggled to establish itself in Leeds but now the new owners think they have the right plan to finally put it on the Leeds map. Chris Bond reports

It’s a sunny afternoon and Leeds is busy.

There are families strolling in the sunshine and making the most of the school holidays, there are workers enjoying a break from the office, there are teenagers gathered in laughing groups.

But none of this is happening at Clarence Dock.

At Clarence Dock on a sunny afternoon there are few people in sight.

When this new part of the city was officially opened in 2008, its owners at the time attracted big name brands to help bring a touch of designer fashion to Leeds – and hopes were high for the waterfront location.

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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, empty spaces.

There are big names still: the Royal Armouries, Alea Casino, Mumtaz and TV chef James Martin’s restaurant The Leeds Kitchen, but not enough.

The residential side of the project has also been a big success with the lion’s share of the 1,100 apartments occupied – but walking around the dock, with its glittering apartment blocks and offices, it’s clear that the retail side of things has failed.

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 said 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.”

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 Spinningields 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.”

He’s impressed, too, by the scope of the vision. “From Monday to Wednesday they are talking about it being a community space with cafes 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.

“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.”