Welsh harbor looks to Baltimore as model for renewal Cardiff plans to redevelop its abandoned waterfront

June 05, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

CARDIFF, Wales -- Lessons from Baltimore are being imported by this Welsh capital to help convert its derelict inner harbor into a dynamic lagoon-side location.

Like Baltimore before it, Cardiff is a port that is past its prime, the victim of closed coal mines and idle steel mills.

In its industrial heyday earlier in this century, there were 600 pits and 256,000 miners working in the Rhondda and other valleys that stretch like fingers into the surrounding hills. Today there are just seven working mines and 6,000 miners.

Thirty years ago, 47 percent of employment in Wales was in the coal and steel industries. Today it is 3 percent, and all but two of Cardiff's docks lie disused and silted up.

Cardiff has had to find a new role. Most recently it has viewed itself mainly as an administrative and communications center, concentrating on expanding its modern interior while allowing its seafront to decline and decay.

Today the focus is on waterfront renewal, with Baltimore as the major model and with Benjamin Thompson, the Boston architect who designed Harborplace, as its visionary.

"In the very early days, before we had any real idea what we could do in Cardiff, various people told us Baltimore was worth seeing," said FreddieWatson, executive director of Grosvenor Waterside, the keystone developer of Cardiff's inner harbor.

"What Ben Thompson has done is give us the core idea of what you have done in Baltimore.

"In a funny way, we had the same problem as Baltimore, being a place people had the wrong impression of, an impression that needed changing," he added.

Cardiff was a place people drove past or flew over. Only ships came its way. Its image was of dirt and dourness, a legacy of its coal-shipping days when it claimed, in 1915, to be the world's busiest port.

The idea that dawned six years ago of uniting Cardiff's successful center with its nearly abandoned waterfront a mile away prompted a series of trans-Atlantic exchange visits by Welsh officials and Baltimoreans.

"The interesting thing that people who came over here [to Cardiff] said was that 'you guys are mighty lucky. You have a city which is already an attractive city, which Baltimore was not. You are starting with a successful city, and you have a bay you can do whatever you like with,' " recalled Mr. Watson.

One obvious disadvantage Cardiff suffers over Baltimore is a daily 40-foot tidal drop, which is claimed locally to be the world's second-greatest after that of Canada's Bay of Fundy.

This leaves the harbor surrounded by unattractive mud flats virtually half the time, with only the waters of the rivers Taff and Ely channeling through them.

"When the tide comes in, it's good news. When the tide goes out, it's bad news. The worse news is there are 14 sewers going into those mud flats," said Duncan Syme, commercial director of the Cardiff Bay Development Corp., the government-funded overseer of the renewal project.

"You don't just have mud. . . . You have stinking mud. Now, it's quite attractive to some wading birds which winter over here. It's not so good for you or your children."

To overcome the muddy eyesore, the development corporation proposes to build a $200 million barrage, or dam, three-quarters of a mile long across the mouth of the bay from Penarth Point in the west to Alexandra Point in the east, forming a 500-acre man-made lagoon over the mud flats in front of the harbor.

"We think the 500 acres of water will be the market edge we think we need to attract investment," said Mr. Syme, describing plans to turn the waterfront area and the barrage itself into a sailing, water sport and recreation facility.

The idea has its opponents.

Environmentalists object to the flooding of the mud flats and the displacement of the wading birds. The developers reply that there are 39,500 acres of mud flats on the Severn estuary and that the 500 acres at Cardiff are not critical.

Residents fear that the lagoon would raise the subterranean water table, threatening their homes with flooded basements and dampness. The developers argue that the rise of ground water would not affect the homes, but they have offered to waterproof 2,000 houses that might be at risk of being affected.

The redevelopment is planned to spread along the seafront for eight miles. It will take an estimated 15 years to 20 years to complete and is projected to create 30,000 jobs.

The Cardiff Bay Development Corp. is budgeting $765 million for infrastructure.

Of this, $510 million will be provided by the government and $255 million will be raised from land sales. The entire project is expected to attract $3.5 billion in private investment.

"Baltimore was quite informative -- with one large caveat," said Grosvenor Waterside's Mr. Watson, who has visited Baltimore twice. "Right from the early days we were advised -- and it was good advice -- not to try to create a Baltimore clone. Those things don't work.

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