Page last updated at 15:22 GMT, Wednesday, 21 October 2009 16:22 UK

Humble history of shopping site

As Cardiff prepares to welcome another major shopping centre, Neil Prior looks into the past, present and future of the heart of the Welsh capital, and its impact on its neighbours.

Inside St David's, Cardiff
The new St David's section will feature more than 160 shops, employing 4,000

It has taken more than four years to build in the heart of Cardiff's shopping centre.

When it opens on Thursday, the new phase of St David's will combine with the revamp of its slightly older sister retail metropolis.

City centre managers hope they bring a glow to the cheeks of the most dedicated shopaholic - even if they perhaps drain the colour from the most reluctant shopaphobe.

Thursday morning will see the doors thrown open on more than 160 shops and catering outlets, employing 4,000 people, and covering a floor space of 967,500 sq ft (89,880 sq m), or enough room to house a jumbo jet.

The main thoroughfare spans around 250m (820ft) end-to-end, long enough to park 25 London buses, and the focal-point atrium is high enough to accommodate the Sphinx.

Overnight, St David's will provide 30% of the commercial real estate in Cardiff city centre, catapulting it into the UK's top 10 shopping destinations, leapfrogging Newcastle, Bristol and Sheffield in the process.

But for those who lament the changing face of Cardiff, and hark back to a simpler time, it might come as a surprise that this is not so new.

If people think Saturday night binge drinking on St Mary Street is a modern phenomenon, then they should have seen it during the early years of the 20th Century
Brian Lee, Cardiff historian

Local historian Brian Lee has documented the city of his birth in 16 books, and says Cardiff has seen it all before.

"People talk about the new St David's like it's the first shopping centre ever to open here," he said.

"But on the site of John Lewis 100 years ago stood the Hayes Bridge, over the Glamorgan Canal, and that was one of the busiest trading points in a city built on mercantile activity.

"It's a significant part of the city historically speaking, as it gave rise to some Cardiff legends like Peerless Jim Driscoll, but I can't imagine it was a very nice place to live at the time.

"The coal, the canal and railways, and the markets attracted in a large migrant community, particularly from Ireland… with all the social problems of drink and fighting and prostitution which come with low wages, overcrowding and poor housing.

"If people think Saturday night binge drinking on St Mary Street is a modern phenomenon, then they should have seen it during the early years of the 20th Century.

"I read about all these upmarket London stores coming in, but again, it's hardly the first attempt to gentrify the city centre.

Artist impression of the development in the Hayes
The area around the Hayes has been completely remodelled

"After the bomb damage during the war, there was a major effort to clear out the slum housing from that area, and we gradually started to see things like the original St David's popping up, along with new posh apartments on Westgate Street.

"At the time there was a terrible outcry, but now people are bemoaning the passing of David Morgan's and the old library.

"Today's eyesores are no more than tomorrow's landmarks!"

But while Cardiff is undergoing more transformation, how will it affect other shopping centres outside the city?

Gareth Thomas, a spokesman for the Festival Park retail outlet in Ebbw Vale, some 30 miles away, said: "We're confident about the future at Festival Park, with or without St David's.

"We've recently signed up Marks & Spencer, who've opened their biggest store outside of a major city centre, which is a measure of how far we're progressing.

Inside St David's 2
The site of St David's new section used to be home to a slum

"To be honest with you, St David's isn't really on our radar.

"We expect that we might find a slight dip in numbers for a few weeks, while people go and see what all the fuss is about, but sooner rather than later they'll get fed up of fighting their way through the traffic into Cardiff, hunting for affordable parking and paying high street prices.

"St David's will be lovely for window shopping, but at Festival Park we've made a business model of trying to provide shoppers with the things they buy on a regular basis, at a significant discount on the prices they'd pay in high street stores.

"That's what people want and need in a time of such economic uncertainty."

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