Clarence Dock: Ups and downs of Leeds cornerstone development

Clarence Dock was officially opened on October 11, 2008, with a glittering waterfront fashion show. Two years on and virtually all of the shops have shipped out.

Rod McPhee looks at the ups and downs of this cornerstone Leeds development.

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What's the big deal about Clarence Dock? The big deal is that this development was intended to stretch out the asset that was Leeds's waterfront by providing a real destination.

But the mixed use leisure, retail and residential development has enjoyed mixed fortunes. Although the 1,100 flats it encompasses are nearly all bought or let, the stores have all but disappeared.

The leisure offering rests somewhere in the middle with restaurants not to mention the casino and Royal Armouries museum suffering from fluctuating footfall.

So where does the project go from here? Owners Lend Lease appear to be keeping tight-lipped about their future.

Their asset manager Graeme Jones released this statement, but no

further comment came from the company: "We are continuing to look at opportunities to further establish Clarence Dock as a retail and leisure destination for the city.

"The scheme has always been an important catalyst for regeneration along with other developments such as Brewery Wharf and Granary Wharf, which have completely transformed the waterfront."

When the Yorkshire Evening Post first looked at the development six months after it opened, the man in charge was Phil Darcy, managing director of developers Lend Lease Yorkshire, who then ran the scheme.

He was working on Clarence Dock since plans were first drawn up in the early Noughties and the foundation stone was laid in 2002.

Last year he said: "We think it's gone reasonably well. How you judge it depends what people expect to be seeing. You've got to remember that we started with something like 40m sq ft of space for various uses and not much of that isn't being used now.

"If you want to establish yourself as a new area of a city it's going to take a three-year cycle – it isn't going to happen overnight."

But, with 12 months to go before the dock reaches that point, things aren't looking too good.

Numerous stores such as Rock Couture, Daniel Footwear, Aspecto, G-Star and Joy have all left and, tellingly, haven't been replaced. Meanwhile Starbucks and @LaRocca, The Anchorage have closed their doors for various reasons.

Other businesses, such as Mumtaz Indian restaurant, are angry because they feel they were misled by the initial hype surrounding the dock. Lend Lease Yorkshire said they were in advanced negotiations with the likes of Armani, but they never came to anything.

"We were led to understand that there would be lots of designer shops down here," says boss Mumtaz Khan. "Something close to Carnaby Street. But that just never happened, and most of those shops that did come here have now left.

"It has been very hard for us, but we're going to stick at it because we're building the business up thanks to loyal clientele and we feel we're a destination restaurant. But unless they do something radical and do something quickly then it really will just be a ghost town down here.

"I just don't buy the idea that they've merely been the victims of the recession. I could understand if the businesses they were talking about came here then left, but a lot of them never came in the first place and surely negotiations with them would have taken place before we went into a recession?"

Rumours are that the dock will now take a more leisure-led direction, a move which Mr Khan broadly supports. But he's also conscious of other more practical measures, such as the introduction of better parking.

Up until recently many of the streets surrounding the dock were coated with double yellow lines, forcing any customers to use the multi-storey car park, which isn't cheap.

"I paid almost 2,000 in fines for my customers because so many of them came to me complaining about getting tickets for parking close to the restaurant – that's a crazy situation," says Mr Khan.

"The council did remove the restrictions on some of the roads around

here but, understandably, a lot of the residents now park there. Now we subsidise the parking costs of our customers when they use the multi-storey, which costs us about 3 a customer."

Earlier this year Coun Andrew Carter, then leader of Leeds City Council, called an emergency summit with bosses of the dock and other relevant parties to discuss a way forward.

"Clarence Dock is terribly important," he says. "It's not just a retail development – it's about creating a whole new waterfront for the city, stretching from the dock past Brewers Wharf up to Granary Wharf.

"Which is why I called the summit in the first place. There's no use in us, as an authority, granting planning permission, taking the contribution which companies make to the authority's coffers and waving goodbye; we have a responsibility to help."

Coun Carter helped remove the severe parking restrictions around the site but is equally bemused by the decision of Clarence Dock to sell off the multi-storey to a private company, effectively losing any control over parking.

"It has to be a two-way street," he says. "We should be willing to help but they have to help themselves. Personally, I think they need to reconsider the retail offering because it should appeal to a far broader base of people.

"Perhaps more leisure facilities are the way forward because it really is a beautiful place to go to, particularly on a sunny day, so we need to dispel this myth that it is just a white elephant which can't be fixed. It can be fixed and I'm convinced it will be a success one day."

A council spokeswoman said: "Clarence Dock is a prime residential and retail development at a major gateway to Leeds and we have been talking to its owners to do what we can to help them develop its potential as a great asset to the city.

"We support events there like the waterfront festival and Leeds Loves Shopping week activities and we are giving further practical help by relaxing on-street parking restrictions. This is something we are working on and has to be done through a legal process which takes time.

However, once this is complete we intend to remove some double yellow lines in local streets to encourage more visitors by making it easier for people to travel there by car."

It isn't all bad news. Interestingly, more mid-market offerings such as the Pizza Express and Tesco frequently do a roaring trade and hope also comes in the form of Yorkshire Water who've taken 55,000 sq ft of office space in one of the biggest non-residential buildings on the dock. They have shipped hundreds of employees into the area and increased footfall.

The aforementioned residential aspect seems to have performed too. "I think we've finally exploded this myth that most of the flats aren't occupied," adds Coun Carter.

That's backed up by Mint Move Property, who only deal in letting apartments in Clarence Dock. Along with Annie Walker, Bev Linfoot runs the company.

"We have a portfolio of about 100 properties and if someone leaves an apartment we usually have someone there to move in straight away, the demand is that high," she says.

"I think the longest we've had to wait before finding another tenant is three to four weeks and even more telling is the fact that we have people approach us to find them an apartment when they already live in another city centre development, but want to come to the dock.

"The difference is that most people here aren't too bothered by the shops, the only shop they're really bothered about is a supermarket and we have a Tesco on site which does very well – not many other developments boast that.

"The location is also great for city living. It is just minutes from the middle of Leeds and lots of people aren't concerned about parking or even having a car because they just walk everywhere.

"Our rental levels have also stayed pretty constant too. For a one-bedroom apartment you're roughly looking at 550 a month and 750 or above for a two-bedroom flat."

Bev has also noticed that tenants are more likely to stay longer in apartments than in other developments, showing that it is a genuine draw with far less transience than first envisaged.