Cardiff Bay has become the location for chic residential and leisure schemes. Will the disbanding of the development corporation sink its regeneration?

Cardiff Bay ranks alongside London docklands as a regeneration success story. Over the past 10 years, the run-down docks have been transformed into the location of choice for developers and homeowners. The more recent sprouting of chic bars and restaurants will complement the Westbury Homes apartments at Century Wharf (rumoured to sell for a cool half million) and the Wales Millennium Centre concert hall. “Cardiff Bay is recognised internationally as a credit-worthy area of development comparable to the Eastern Seaboard in the States,” says Roger Dean, group development director of local developer Brunswick Holdings. The bay still has some way to go to match the latte-sipping cool of Boston, but it has come far over the past decade.

However, the disbanding of the area’s dedicated regeneration body could put a spanner in the works. The 13-year-old Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was wound up in March and its assets divided between Cardiff County Council, Vale of Glamorgan Borough Council and the Welsh Development Agency. Three months after its closure, what is the mood among firms in the area?

Citex, project manager on the Wales Millennium Centre, is optimistic. Managing director Steve Lee expects the job to be one of many in the area. “There is still evidence of an enormous amount of activity in the future and we are using the centre as our anchor project for the region,” he says. His views are echoed by Cardiff Bay-based Davis Langdon & Everest partner Jim Leighton. “It is still very vibrant. We have just this minute been talking about a new residential development in the bay,” says Leighton. Fears that Welsh first secretary Rhodri Morgan would axe the Richard Rogers Partnership-designed Welsh assembly building have proved unfounded – assembly members gave the design the go-ahead last Wednesday. And a massive development in the bay has been given the green light. This £250m leisure, retail and residential complex is known as the Sports Village, and the first phase is due to start on site next year. Comprising a swimming pool, snow dome, ice-hockey stadium, housing and shops, it is being developed by Cardiff County Council in conjunction with contractor HBG, Philips and Capital and Regional.

Also prospering is Bute Avenue, the road of commercial developments connecting the waterfront with the city centre, which is set to open in the autumn. There are still more sites ripe for redevelopment in the bay, and the Welsh Development Agency is now responsible for these. Nicholas Neal, managing director of the agency’s land division, says: “I have inherited what has been on the market for a number of years.“ Sites that are under consideration include the listed former Coal Exchange building. Macob Projects is in discussion with the agency to convert it into apartments.

Some local firms see the disbanding of the development corporation as an opportunity. Tim Holder, chairman of architect Holder Mattias Alcock, who liked the area so much he moved the practice there, says: “A good aspect of the demise of the corporation is that talented Welsh architects will once again be given equal opportunity. The corporation tended to enjoy commissioning names, as they might collect a Monet or a Renoir, often to the exclusion of local designers.” But his optimism is tempered by the concern that without the corporation, Cardiff Bay will lose its unique image and become known as Cardiff South. “Those like us who have committed enormous time, effort and funds to the bay will want to see the imagery that represented the vision built upon, not changed,” says Holder. “Cardiff South sounds like a railway station,” points out Brunswick’s Dean. “Cardiff Bay makes you think of boats bobbing in the harbour, which has much more cachet.”

There are also fears that the bay will find it more difficult to secure funds and projects because it will have to compete with the rest of the city. One architect that has worked extensively in the area is concerned that the momentum for further development will be lost. As Holder says: “The CBDC was focused on the task. Cardiff council and the WDA have a much wider remit and fewer individuals focused on the bay in particular.”

The Welsh Development Agency is well aware of this problem. The £2.4bn in public and private funding exclusively for the bay has been spent, and inward investment, European grants and other funds are fiercely contested in Wales. Neal says: “We have inherited the only part of Wales we didn’t work in. The bay’s special funding has dried up and it is a difficult juggling act.”

One firm feeling the effect of this lack of focus is Alsop & Störmer. The London-based architect worked on Cardiff Bay Barrage and still has landscaping work to complete. But since the corporation disbanded, Cardiff council, which now controls the barrage, has done little to make sure the job is finished. Stephen Pimbley, Cardiff-born partner of Alsop & Störmer, says: “It is a bit unfortunate that Cardiff has spent £200m on the barrage but cannot afford the petty sum to finish the landscaping.”

Fears that the area will lose its identity and the fact that there is no single body to steer it into the next decade are problems but, at the moment, the buoyant economy, thriving housing market and general confidence seem to be keeping the bay afloat.

The history of Cardiff Bay

Cardiff Bay is one of Europe’s largest urban regeneration projects, covering 1100 ha and with £2.4bn in public and private investment. The corporation’s job was to turn the docks into a vibrant and economically viable area to live and work. The corporation was set up in 1987 by the Conservative government as one of a number of urban development corporations with the remit to create new towns in derelict parts of old cities. Its role was to seek grants and inward investment for the area. The centrepiece of its plan for Cardiff Bay was the £200m barrage, which was recently completed by a Costain/Balfour Beatty joint venture. A total of £500m of public money has been spent by the corporation. The decision to close the corporation in March was taken because the bay area is considered to be at a stage where it can compete with the rest of of the city.