South Wales Echo

‘There’s decent footfall but this area just isn’t grabbing people...’


The once-bustling Capitol Centre on Cardiff’s Queen Street finally has new hope after decades of decay. Will the two ambitious schemes halt the decline of a once-popular shopping district? Conor Gogarty finds out what’s been happening...

ON the upper floor of Cardiff’s Capitol Centre, a young man and woman gaze adoringly at each other. They are not customers, but actors on an ad hoarding which stretches wide to cover one of the shopping centre’s many empty units.

“Capitol Centre, Cardiff – Where Friends Meet,” reads the ad. It’s a descriptio­n which seems incongruou­s in the almost eerily quiet Tuesday afternoon, with only a few customers in the building.

Struggles for trade are hardly new here, and the malaise is not limited to the Capitol. Recent years have been harsh to this end of the city centre, leaving the eastern side of Queen Street looking increasing­ly rundown.

But what is new is a sense of optimism stemming from two ambitious plans – one for a market of independen­t traders, the other for a ‘Canal Quarter’.

When we speak to people in the area, we hear their hopes that Cardiff’s centre of gravity could shift eastwards a little from the dominant St David’s Centre. Joining us on our visit is a man who knows as much about the area as anyone. Tony Lloyd (aka The Difflomat) has been giving tours of Cardiff for nearly a decade, becoming well-known for his affectiona­te but honest appraisals of the city.

Tony has a spry energy that belies his 69 years. No sooner have we noted down his observatio­ns at one spot than he strides forward to the next, bursting with passion for his home city. “I always try to offer the positive option – if there’s a clanger or something wrong, don’t just complain,” says the former teacher, who took early retirement to travel the world before returning to Cardiff as a guide.

“I’ve been to 1,000 cities and believe me, we have a good lot in Cardiff.” With a mischievou­s glint, he adds: “We’re better than Bristol.”

Before he gets on to his positive feeling around the new schemes, though, Tony walks us around Queen Street’s beleaguere­d east end, airing his frustratio­ns at its decline. Outside the Capitol he points to chipped, peeling and grimy parts of the exterior. “Would you rent a shop here?” he asks.

Some of the shops facing on to the street are full of customers, particular­ly Tesco Express, Boots and Caffe Nero, but they are interspers­ed with vacant premises. Tony remembers a healthy mix of independen­ts and chains like Foster’s Menswear in decades gone by.

“There is decent footfall coming from Queen Street station and the university buildings over there,” says Tony, pointing towards Newport Road. “But this area isn’t grabbing people. Things have gradually gone more that way.”

By “that way”, he means St David’s, which has become the third busiest shopping complex in the UK since it was extended in 2009. The centre can demand as much as £395,000 in annual rent for a unit smaller than 3,000 square feet. In stark contrast, online adverts for larger Capitol units ask for rent no higher than £90,000.

At the very eastern end of Queen Street, three ancient faces with severe expression­s, one smoking a cigar, loom above shoppers. The ceramic tiles belonged to the luxury Dutch Café tearoom, which opened in 1887 at the unit now occupied by Nero.

Tony makes a tongue-in-cheek claim that he might have been responsibl­e for the tiles being preserved. As a student in the 1980s, he complained to the Capitol developer when he found out the row of Victorian buildings would be demolished to make way for the shopping centre, telling them: “You have all these beautiful facades and you’re going to knock them down to build something really bland.”

The developer had not been aware of the historic faces, which ended up being kept for the Capitol when it launched in 1990. There were also efforts to imitate the brickwork of the original architectu­re, though this approach was ditched for later glassy add-ons.

The Capitol initially thrived, helped by the main draw of an H&M, but the flagship clothing store was replaced by Poundworld in the early 2010s. The key space now lies abandoned.

Entering the centre to a soundtrack of ghostly synth muzak, we pass units shielded by jarringly jolly ad hoardings. “It’s cold and clinical,” says Tony. “It’s gaunt, empty and uninviting.”

Inside the Capitol this reporter counts 16 empty units and 21 in use, from a bubble tea shop to salons to a phone repair store. On the upper floor, Tony questions the logic of “corridors to nowhere”, walkways which don’t link up with each other. When we venture down a mysterious breezebloc­k-walled passage, Tony jokes: “That’s like something out of Doctor Who. If you disappear into a parallel universe I’m not rescuing you.”

The route actually leads into the Premiere cinema near Queen Street station, but it’s a fire exit rarely used by the public. Tony has always thought it a “design flaw” that the shopping centre lacks a proper entrance by the station, missing out on footfall.

There is a steady stream of customers into the gym upstairs and another unit is a Jobcentre. Could this kind of mixed-use approach offer an escape from a waning retail model knocked by online shopping and shinier shopping centres? Capitol’s owner NewRiver – which bought the centre for £92 million in 2015 – unveiled proposals for a redevelopm­ent led by leisure and restaurant­s, with a tower of 100 flats above, but little has been heard of that vision since 2017.

One major change that will be going ahead is the arrival of a massive food court later this year. Kommune will occupy more than 14,500 sq ft across the old Poundworld and another unit, bringing eight food kiosks, two bars, a bakery, a café, a big shop and about 100 jobs. And it will stay open until 1am, meaning the Capitol closing five hours later.

There are heartening signs from the other Kommune branch, in Sheffield, which has a decidedly independen­t spirit – offering North African street food, fresh fish, craft beer and burgers, as well as gigs and craft workshops. Some in Cardiff have drawn comparison­s to 15:17’s Fresh, Local and Wild department store and café which launched last year in Queen Street’s old Topshop.

That venture brought together an indoor market of traders, then closed down within months, leaving the space dormant again. But whereas 15:17 had previously been dogged by controvers­y, Kommune has won positive reviews in Sheffield.

Despite 15:17’s failure, Tony thinks the concept could work if done well. “I’m hoping the market will resuscitat­e the Capitol,” he says. “If the market fails, I think that’s its last breath.”

Perhaps the most eye-catching shop in the Capitol is Flamingos, where second-hand vintage clothing is sold by the weight. The colourful, eclectic offering ranges from obscure sports tops to Spice Girls memorabili­a and even a worker’s jacket from a Canadian drilling project in 1987.

Most of the stock is from the 60s to early 00s, says the manager Issy. She tells us the store is semi-independen­t, with other branches in Swansea and Bristol, and it is popular with youngsters. “There are a lot of big chains on Queen Street so when people come in and see this they’re nicely surprised,” the 24-year-old adds. The shop launched in 2018 but employee Venla Valve, 29, says it is common for people to come in thinking it has just opened. “They say they would have come in sooner if they’d known we were here.” Issy adds: “A lot of our business is from word of mouth rather than footfall.” But she says there are positives to being in the Capitol, with its “really nice” pop-up art exhibition­s and the incoming food court. “It will bring a lot of footfall in – it will be great.”

We head on to Queen Street and up a side street, Park Lane, where there is a sound of running water. Fenced off in the car park behind Giovanni’s restaurant is a gap in the ground, where water is rushing beneath us. This is a glimpse of the canal which could be the key to transformi­ng this end of the city centre.

Building work has already started on Cardiff Council’s £13million project to reopen the dock feeder canal along Churchill Way as part of a new Canal Quarter with retail, leisure and public spaces. And Tony is excited about the plans.

“People say it will be full of drunks and old trolleys – oh, give it a chance,” he says. “You can hear how fast-flowing it is. It won’t be stagnant. There’s nothing quite like the sound of water for serenity. It’s certainly what the area needs.”

The dock feeder was created in the late 1830s, helping power Cardiff ’s industrial revolution. The arrival of the railway saw the city’s canals lose business and the dock feeder was culverted in 1949 to make way for a new road, Churchill Way, which is now home to bars, office blocks and a Premier Inn hotel. Work on reopening the canal is expected to continue until next February.

The top end of Churchill Way will

be closed to traffic while greenery and benches will be placed around the canal as well as an amphitheat­re-style outdoor stage. Longer term, the council foresees new hotels, shops, flats and offices in the area.

“This is going to be the best piece of real estate in town,” says Brynn McCreary, manager of The Sandwich Bar, which recently opened on Churchill Way. For now, the business is a couple of metres from a constructi­on site – not ideal for passing trade.

But Brynn says the shop has been increasing­ly busy with customers enjoying its fresh sandwiches, largely made with ingredient­s from local suppliers.

“With the canal being developed it’s a reprisal of the past but there are also some really interestin­g new ideas,” says the 26-year-old. “It’s going to be an amazing attraction – green space, a bandstand for live performanc­es. We just need to stick around until it’s finished.”

An LGBT+ bar called the DockFeeder will open soon on Churchill Way, joining the street’s gay bars Pulse and Kings. “With the potential for a new quarter, it makes a lot of business and cultural sense to invest,” says Brynn. “It’s going to be like a new version of the [Cardiff ] Bay.

“When the new quarter opens I don’t want to see Greggs or anything like that,” he adds. “After the BBC opened by Cardiff Central, what did they put at the bottom? Greggs and Boots. We want to see more local, independen­t businesses.”

Just outside the Capitol we come across one of the city centre’s most familiar faces – community cleaner Colin Copeland, who for years has been collecting discarded Minions and McDonald’s toys. Hanging from almost every inch of his cart, they delight shoppers, who have started donating their own toys to the evergrowin­g legion. “There’s still space for a few more,” Colin grins.

The 55-year-old has been cleaning the streets of Cardiff since 2006. What has been going wrong for this end of Queen Street in that time? “It’s just the lack of an attraction this side,” he says. “Cardiff Castle is over there, the Principali­ty Stadium is over there, St David’s is over there. This is the tailend. It’s the more rundown side of town, the quieter side.”

Colin believes there will “definitely” be a boost from the canal developmen­t, which he can see being a popular place for students to eat and drink. As for the Capitol, he thinks it should shift away from retail and into entertainm­ent and leisure. “Maybe a go-kart track or rock-climbing,” he suggests. “It’s halfway there, with the cinema. You’ve got people going to the gym there and maybe they would be into other sports. Maybe that’s more the future.”

Tony predicts the Canal Quarter will bring a Parisian-style stretch of cafés. Though the tour guide is looking forward to the regenerati­on, he hopes to see variety at this end of the city centre.

“Cardiff is relying on coffee shops and bubble tea places to keep it going,” he says, with a smile at the irony as he sips on a vanilla latte from

Nero. “How much coffee can we drink? For my generation it’s a whole new world [to see so many coffee shops]. It’s a way to support Cardiff but I don’t think it’s enough by itself. I have been to 1,000 cities, and from Marrakesh to Melbourne to Montreal, where cities work is where they have character and variety.”

Calling for more imaginatio­n, Tony would like to see an escape room attraction in the Capitol. He also suggests a museum celebratin­g Cardiff’s history of making hit TV series like Dr Who, Sherlock and Casualty. “When the Dr Who Experience was open [in Cardiff Bay], people came from Kazakhstan, Mexico, Indonesia. They came on my tours and they fell in love with Cardiff and kept coming back.”

McSims, an independen­t café on the eastern end of Queen Street, specialise­s in handmade hot Maltese pastizzis, making it unique in the city centre. The thick, crunchy pastries – with fillings ranging from chicken to chocolate – have been quietly becoming a hit since the shop opened four months ago. It is the business’s second branch, following the first which trades in Cardiff University’s student union building.

Every day on his way to work Mahmud Elwerfelli, one of the three owners, walks along Queen Street and notices how the empty units begin to surround him as he goes from west to east. The Libyan-born chef, who spent 12 years in Malta before moving to Cardiff, is frustrated by the vacant premises opposite and to the side of his shop.

“The area is not busy enough,” says the 39-year-old. “We need more shops to open. In our first couple of months here we were quiet but we’re getting busier. Our customers come back to us, which is important.”

Mahmud had not been aware of the Canal Quarter plan, but he seems pleased when we explain it. He believes the scheme, along with the Kommune market, could help revive this end of Queen Street as a foodie destinatio­n.

“I would like lots of different options opening here – Japanese, Mexican, Italian. This is good. Sometimes people will eat at those places and sometimes they will eat here.”

A spokespers­on for NewRiver declined to comment when asked for an update on the 2017 plan for a mixed-use developmen­t at the Capitol, but said the firm was “looking forward to seeing the plans for the new Canal Quarter develop”.

They added: “These plans and our own planned transforma­tion of the Capitol Centre mark a really exciting juncture for this part of the city. We are making good progress behind the scenes and are having conversati­ons with some great operators but at this time, all leasing matters are confidenti­al.”

A Cardiff Council spokespers­on said: “Cardiff Council has set out our position on how the city will recover from the pandemic through our Greener, Fairer, Stronger strategy. Early indication­s show that the city’s recovery is very positive, with city centre weekly footfall figures often exceeding pre-pandemic levels, with the recovery most notable on Queen Street itself.

“Despite the pandemic, there has been a net growth in businesses in the city centre over the past five years. In a recent Good Growth report by Pricewater­houseCoope­rs (PWC) published recently, Cardiff outperform­s every other city in the UK. In fact, Cardiff has seen one of the best recoveries in the UK.

“The recent news on the developmen­t of the Canal Quarter will act as a catalyst for further investment to create a vibrant district in the east of the city, interlinki­ng Bridge Street, David Street, Charles Street, Tredegar Street, Guildford Crescent and Barrack Lane to develop a high-density, mixed-use developmen­t, attracting homes, hotels, hospitalit­y, highqualit­y offices, leisure and retail units.

“Through the city’s recovery strategy and our dedicated city centre response, there will be a continued effort to ensure that the city centre remains competitiv­e, to entice further private sector investment and make the city centre an even better place for residents and visitors to enjoy.”

 ?? ??
 ?? ?? Venla Valve from Flamingo Vintage
Venla Valve from Flamingo Vintage
 ?? JONATHAN MYERS ?? Tony Lloyd (aka The Difflomat) has been giving tours of Cardiff for nearly a decade
JONATHAN MYERS Tony Lloyd (aka The Difflomat) has been giving tours of Cardiff for nearly a decade
 ?? ?? Community cleaner Colin Copeland with his eye-catching cart covered in toys
Community cleaner Colin Copeland with his eye-catching cart covered in toys
 ?? ?? Brynn McCreary of The Sandwich Bar
Brynn McCreary of The Sandwich Bar
 ?? ?? Mahmud Elwerfelli of McSims café
Mahmud Elwerfelli of McSims café

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