Battling what was already described as a ‘perfect storm’ due to the impact of out-of-town and online retail, centres are now forced to contend with the added pressures of the planning use class changes brought about to keep high streets viable, and are seeking to reposition themselves fit for a post-pandemic era.
It is widely understood that to remain viable, traditional town centres must adapt by providing a variety of uses to increase footfall throughout the day and night. This can be seen up and down the country: from Stockton-on-Tees, Nottingham to Portsmouth proposals are emerging for a change in focus to increased public open spaces with an innovative mix of surrounding uses.
While many of these schemes were underway before the pandemic hit in March 2020, they have nonetheless adapted in response to it.
Over several years Carter Jonas’s regeneration team has been working with Swansea Council to transform its city centre. Perhaps what makes the Council’s strategy so successful is that rather than steadfastly adhering to a pre-pandemic masterplan, it has evolved in response to the changed circumstances. It seeks to cater both for those eager to return to pre-pandemic normality and has also incorporated learnings from the pandemic and leans towards a ‘new normal’. It also responds to the strong sense of community that emerged during the pandemic, the importance of supporting local businesses and a heightened awareness of environmental and wellbeing issues.
Prior to the pandemic, Swansea city centre had been impacted by poor post-war planning, industrial decline, a lack of quality office space and a trend for out-of-town shops, offices and leisure facilities. The Council’s objective is to deliver a thriving and sustainable living, working and leisure destination which creates unique appeal by capitalising on the city’s historic connections and outstanding rural and coastal environments. A £200 million investment has enabled two significant public sector-led developments to come forward: 71-72 Kingsway, a 100,000 sq ft flexible workspace scheme aimed at tech and creative start-ups and SMEs; and Copr Bay, a 3,500-capacity arena, coastal park, restaurants and residential scheme, accessible by foot and by bicycle across the new landmark bridge over Oystermouth Road.
71-72 Kingsway, designed during the pandemic, will deliver a building fit for its time, with construction work has now started. The design includes provision for flexible workspace, with the potential for meetings to be held outside, alongside supporting amenities - all addressing the city’s green agenda, and linking with the new public realm on Kingsway itself.
In March this year, just as the UK was emerging from two years of Covid restrictions, the opening of the new £135 million Copr Bay destination was a positive milestone for the city. Importantly, Copr Bay also includes a new 1.1-acre coastal park, the first park to be created in Swansea city centre since the Victoria era, and attractive spaces dedicated to food and drink businesses which, in order to champion distinctiveness and encourage local businesses, have all been let to independent operators. The appeal of external dining has increased exponentially in the last two years and the Council is now also considering other locations where food and drink providers can launch new businesses with a lower start-up cost and with considerably increased flexibility.
Worth £17.1m per annum to Swansea’s economy, Copr Bay is already acting as a catalyst for growth. As well as the new businesses within the development, existing local pubs and restaurants have reported a surge in business following the opening of the new arena and there is no doubt that Swansea is bouncing back from the economic impact of the pandemic.
Communicating Swansea’s distinctive attributes and future potential has been key to this success, as is futureproofing: the strategy for the city has been flexible to accommodate economic and market change. The strategy seeks to mitigate the impact of climate change and creates an integrated approach toward economic, social and cultural well-being goals. Tourism is also an important focus: Swansea is well placed to attract those travelling to the Gower Peninsula and West Wales, and a key part of the strategy is to secure unique leisure attractions.
At the arena’s opening event and subsequent events, it was clear that many people are keen to socialise again, and it is proving to be a great success. There have also been many lessons learnt from the pandemic and perhaps the most important from a development perspective is understanding a desire for change and delivering upon it sensitively, through achieving an appropriate balance between consistency in strategy and flexibility in delivery.