LOOKING out to the 26-year-old Red Dragon Centre retail complex in Cardiff, it is almost difficult to imagine the shiny new indoor arena which is planned to take its place.
The 17,000 capacity arena, which is part of a wider plan to develop Atlantic Wharf in Butetown alongside flats, hotels, offices and shops, is seen as a missing link in Cardiff’s venue-space offering.
However, the plans are also looked at with a degree of scepticism by some, who see the project as something which could become ever more difficult to deliver after the projected cost of the arena grew by about £100 million.
The cost of building the indoor arena is now expected to be £280 million. In a more recent update, Cardiff Council also revealed that construction on the site is now anticipated to commence in January 2024.
It was previously reported that the arena was expected to open in 2025. It is now difficult to imagine it being open any time earlier than 2026.
Only two weeks ago, the Liberal Democrats group at Cardiff Council and four Conservative councillors called on the authority to shelve its plans for the arena amid its own growing financial pressures.
However, the council has also given assurances that despite the cost increase and delay, joint operator of the future arena Live Nation remains fully committed to the project and has secured board approval to absorb the cost increase.
It is also worth pointing out that many people in Cardiff are tired of looking enviously to the other side of the River Severn as their favourite bands by-pass Cardiff and take the next stage of their tour to Bristol.
These people will no doubt be eager to see the new arena take shape. And then, there are the people who will see this new structure built practically on their doorstep – the people who live and work in Butetown and the surrounding area.
What do they make of these plans?
Natasha Davies, who has lived in Butetown since 2011, said: “Some additional music venues based in Cardiff is probably a good thing.
“I think Cardiff has probably been a little bit like the poor man to Bristol for music spaces.
“I think that investment is probably a good thing, particularly if the Red Dragon Centre isn’t really doing too well, but I would worry what the impact could be around busy nights in the Bay.
“Is it going to get chock-a-block and is it going to be a bit difficult to get around?”
The council anticipates that the increased footfall brought by the arena will be accommodated by a new tram service from Cardiff Central to a new station on Pierhead Street, which is part of the first phase of the Cardiff Crossrail project.
Active travel routes and a new multi-storey car park are also expected to help reduce congestion on event days.
As well as the offices, shops and flats, the Atlantic Wharf project will bring restaurants, bars and – it is hoped – some renewed life to the area.
When asked what she hopes the development will bring to the community, Natasha said: “Hopefully some more social spaces.
“I think there is probably a question about how much of the local community it will engage with and what kind of events happen there.
“I think the Bay overall feels like it is probably lacking some of that stuff. It feels like a bit of an inbetween place.
“It is trying to appeal to people who are popping to the WMC for a show, but then not necessarily meeting what, as a young person living in the area, you might want. At the moment it probably feels like you do have to go to town for everything.”
There are also fears that the development could be a repeat of the plans to redevelop Cardiff Bay in the 1980s.
The Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, dissolved in 2000, saw Cardiff Bay regenerated and turned into a popular leisure spot.
However, there are many today who feel as though the benefits of the project were not felt in the wider community of Butetown.
Natasha said said she agreed that this is probably a feeling felt by some in the area, particularly the longer-standing Butetown community members.
She added: “I think it has been well-publicised that the development really didn’t take into account their needs or their wants for the area.
“I think the demographics have changed and it has become a place where a lot of young people and professionals live. I think there is probably a gap in what is available down here.”
Thomas Brooks, who lives in Grangetown and regularly travels to Butetown, said: “I just think it is a great idea to build the arena.
“I think Cardiff not that long ago was named City of Music and a lot of my colleagues and friends, we struggle for a really decent venue to see big acts and Cardiff being a capital city should attract the biggest acts in the world.
“The arena, I think, has the ability to do it. The Red Dragon Centre is knocking on now so it is about time to replace it.”
When asked about the delay of the project and the increased cost of building it, Thomas, 32, added: “It is a concern, but I think overall the economic impact will outweigh that cost in the long-term.
“That is going to be there for a long time. You can’t make money without investing money.”
Atif Gulzar, 47, has worked in Cardiff Bay for 12 years. He also had concerns about the potential rise in traffic that the new development could bring.
He said: “12 years before and now, I did not see too much change in this area. I think it is the same [then] as it is now in my time over 12 years.”
“There is so much traffic now. I have no idea with this [development] because I am coming to work now and there is going to be disruption.”
Existing businesses in Butetown, especially those on the opposite side of Lloyd George Avenue to the Red Dragon Centre near Cardiff Bay train station, could see a big impact from the new arena developent.
Co-owner of Bears Barbershop on West Bute Street, Abbi Parry, may not necessarily see an influx of concert-goers coming in for a haircut, but she does think a new arena will generally be good for business in the area.
She said: “I think it will be great for the Bay as a whole to bring more people down because there is lots to do, but the only thing is with the parking down here it is very restricted.
“When there are things like filming going on it makes it even harder.
“As long as there is plenty of parking and it doesn’t affect all of the side streets, then I think us as a business won’t be massively affected, but like I said it is still great for the Bay as a whole to have something that will bring more people down.”
The multi-storey car park which is to be built as part of the Atlantic Wharf Masterplan is expected to have about 1,300 spaces.
Neil Rayment of Neil Rayment Goldsmiths said he has been designing and manufacturing on Bute Street for nearly 16 years.
His retail shop has been in place for two years. Neil said he doesn’t expect to capitalise that much from the new arena in terms of business as his company is a bespoke one, relying mainly on clientèle who already know what he has to offer.
However, like Abbi, he thinks the development would be a positive one from a business point of view.
He said: “The Red Dragon Centre has been here forever hasn’t it? I feel it is less of a destination now than what it used to be.
“That is the place that does need a big, shiny new something, that is for sure.”
Plans for the new arena and the Atlantic Wharf Masterplan were approved in March 2022.
To enable the delivery of the project, the council acquired the Red Dragon Centre in late 2019.
On whether the arena could have much of an impact on his trade, Neil added: “For my type of business, it may benefit me a little bit just from people passing and maybe noticing us and the word spreads a little bit more, but directly I don’t think so.
“Anything that brings people into this area has got to be a good thing.”
A Cardiff Council spokesperson said: “The new development will bring much needed investment into Butetown, creating jobs and opportunities for local people and we have a commitment from the developer that this will happen.
“To accommodate the increase in footfall due to the arena and the wider development, better public transport will be provided, with the electrification of the Core Valley Lines which will run down to Cardiff Bay Train Station and the first phase of Cardiff Crossrail which will be a new tram service from Cardiff Central via Cardiff Bay Train Station to a new station on Pierhead Street.
“Active travel routes will also be improved down Lloyd George Avenue and a new multi-storey car park will be built as part of the development.”