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Take a Tiger by the tail

As Cardiff Bay witnesses the largest urban regeneration scheme in Europe, Stephen Thomas takes stock of local views

If you go to Cardiff for rugby, opera, shopping or business, there are few reminders that the city is on the coast or that at the turn of the century coal made it a boom town on the scale of Chicago. The original settlement grew up inland, around a Roman fort, and, from the 18th century on, industrial expansion insulated the town from the sea. The tracks of Brunel's Great Western Railway created a psychological barrier round docks built to export first iron, then coal brought down on the Glamorganshire Canal and the Taff Vale Railway. The giant East Moors Steel Works, feeding off imported Spanish ore, took up a further tract of land between town and sea.

The recent story is a more familiar one. The decline of port and steel works led to a dockland redevelopment scheme. In this case it has amounted to more than cobbling a few warehouses into wine bars and boutiques. One sixth the area of the city, 2,700 acres, is being reclaimed - the largest current urban regeneration scheme in Europe. Cardiff, like Barcelona, has been given a marvellous opportunity to establish a new relationship with the sea.

It makes a unique case study because the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation is the only one of the 13 now established not to be given planning powers. The cruder, market-led "smash and grab" models imposed on London or Bristol have been avoided. Progress may have been slower but it has involved a better balance between competing interests and alternative visions.

The development zone falls into three segments, with industry in the east, a projected 6,000 houses in the west, and leisure, tourism and culture in the central Inner Harbour area. A 1.1 kilometre barrage is being built across the mouth of the estuary of the Taff and Ely rivers to hold water in the bay. This will create a 500-acre tideless freshwater lake, enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the Inner Harbour by concealing the ugly tidal mud flats exposed by the 40-feet drop between high and low tide. A fish pass will encourage marine life and allow salmon to return to the rivers.

The Inner Harbour is not on a major eastwest route, although there are plenty of magnets to draw visitors into the area. A new loop road linking with the M4 on either edge of the city is already half finished. The Techniquest science centre attracts 200,000 visitors a year and the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum has working exhibits illustrating Cardiff's role as a leading coal exporter. There are plans for a Pounds 30 million leisure complex with multiplex, nightclubs, places to eat and drink as well as extensive commercial development including the Pounds 200 million Ocean Technical Glass plant. The opening of the UK's biggest Harry Ramsden fish and chip restaurant has done as much as anything to broaden the diversity of visitors.

One setback has been the failure of the Cardiff Bay Opera House Trust to win a Pounds 85 million grant from the Millennium Commission for an opera house designed by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, which would have provided a new home for the Welsh National Opera and been the most prestigious project in the bay. This has lost out to the successful Pounds 46 million bid for a new Welsh National Stadium to host the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

The less abrasive approach of the Development Corporation has not prevented conflicts and controversies. The barrage will disturb bird life in the river estuary and alternative feeding sites are being sought further up the Severn at Magor. The development zone includes "Tiger Bay", the working-class, multi-ethnic Butetown, now one of Cardiff's most disadvantaged communities. Many residents feel that they have not been taken sufficiently seriously in the regeneration and gentrification of the area. On the other hand, the Development Corporation claims that 30,000 jobs will be created and the Cardiff Bay Employment and Training Group has been set up in two old warehouses in Dumbles Road offering 200 construction and basic skills training places for local people.

With the exception of a number of old dockland pubs, which will be swept away by the construction of the new Bute Avenue and the light railway link with the city centre, the record on preservation of buildings is good. The magnificent Coal Exchange and Pier Head buildings have been superbly restored and provide continuity with the past.

Cardiff Bay offers many opportunities for individual or group study of a range of urban regeneration issues. Will Alsop's tube-like Visitor Centre has a video display and superb model which sets out the projected development of the Bay. There are guided coach tours for groups and the Maritime Museum has a good stock of photographs and documents about the history of the docks. The Butetown History and Arts Centre, yet to find a permanent home, is also an invaluable source of documentation on the history of the docklands community itself.

Cardiff Bay is an exciting place, but it stands as a metaphor for the recent history of south Wales, forced reluctantly to relinquish the vitality of its industrial and trading past. The bland, more anaemic but unavoidable service economy which stands in its place has responded uneasily to those, like the residents of Butetown, who are marginalised by the process.

Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, tel: 01222 585858.

Coach tours and the Cardiff Bay Visitors Centre, tel: 01222 463833.

Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum Education Officer, tel: 01222 481919, ext 28.

Techniquest, tel: 0l222 475475

Butetown History and Arts Centre, tel: 01222 494757

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