Dundee Central Waterfront – frameworks for change

18 July 1999 | blog, cities, frameworks, place making, waterfronts

Dundee Central Waterfront Aerial View circa 1999
Dundee City Council appointed a team led by EDAW including Oscar Faber, Ryden and WMUD to develop a strategic framework for the Central Waterfront at Dundee.

The site does not have a street system or grain in the traditional sense; rather it is a spatially disaggregated collection of large individual buildings, pedestrian overbridges, roads, structures, signage and landscaping. The overall effect of this is that there is little sense of place or shelter and a conspicuous lack of ground level uses or activities which one might expect at an urban waterfront.
Dundee Figure Field Comparison
Interestingly, the grain of the site did not change dramatically with the construction of the Tay Road Bridge and the infilling of the docks. Dock Street always represented the hard edge of the city centre and the only other area which had a marked urban grain was South Union Street. The rest of the site was historically quite open in character with occasional large buildings and other structures spread out over the dock area. The site is a roads dominated environment and although pedestrians have been catered for by overbridges and other segregated walkways, the experience of walking through the site falls short of the standards of public realm and environmental quality which typify best practice today.

Also, without radical change in the road system, there is little or no opportunity for new development or improvement in the spatial structure. Along the northwest boundary of the site, the situation is markedly different. Dock Street is the only part of the site which has a traditional structure of ground floor uses and it also represents the edge of the City Centre Conservation Area. Within this area the grain, mix of uses, quality of townscape and the general standard of environment are appropriate exemplars for the study area itself. A reasonable aspiration would therefore be to grow this area into the study site.

Conceptual Development Frameworks – Key principles

To progress the thinking on the potential of the central waterfront we developed a set of five conceptual options, each drawing on a particular theme or infrastructure component. These options share four common principles namely:

  1. the extension of the city centre grain into the study area
  2. the need to achieve connectivity between the study area and surrounding land to the north, east and west
  3. the practical requirements of the road system for an east-west link across the site, and
  4. the aspiration to improve the waterfront itself by integration with the city centre

An urban grain

By taking the grain of the city centre and extending it to the waterfront, it is possible to achieve a number of worthwhile objectives, including maintaining and framing views, improving the microclimate of the site, setting out an appropriate scale and pattern for future development and the flexible structuring of land uses. It is not necessarily appropriate to take the density and urban character of the city centre right to the estuary, so there is a point at which city centre becomes waterfront and vice versa. This is achieved by treating the halfway point between Dock Street and the Waterfront as the transition area – south of this line to the River Tay, although the basic street block pattern is maintained, the extent to which it is built up lessens, opening up views, creating larger areas of public realm, introducing water areas while providing shelter. All five of the optional development frameworks accommodate this principle.

Maximising connectivity

If the study area is to be developed successfully, it must integrate with its surroundings. The brief already places a strong emphasis on the need to integrate waterfront and city centre but there is an additional need to link the site to the Victoria Dock area to the east and to improve the connections and structure of the west side of the study area to the station area and adjacent development sites. Each of the five development frameworks attempts to achieve this through improving pedestrian and vehicular links, establishing better visual connections and setting out a more integrated pattern of land uses across the study area.

Addressing the Tay Bridge and Road System

The fact that the study area accommodates the northern landfall of the Tay Road Bridge means that there are inescapable issues associated with traffic and the road system. These are potentially difficult to deal with in the context of a study which is aimed at integrating city centre and waterfront. In the simplest terms, there is a need to accommodate some form of cross-link between the east and west boundaries of the site. The five options set out below deal with this in three different ways.

Build on attributes of Waterfront location

The waterfront is perhaps the study area’s greatest asset but it is currently under-utilised and disconnected from the city centre. It is not one of the world’s great waterfronts but it has special characteristics, judging from the very seductive photographs of it in its heyday. The challenge for the future here is not about nostalgia and replicating the past, but of function, land use, quality of materials and the role and use of the water itself. The five options described approach the treatment of the waterfront in different ways but share the underlying principles of:

  • increasing the effective length of waterfront,
  • creating a better range of uses adjacent to the water,
  • improving the microclimate and
  • ensuring that new areas of water have a function and are not purely decorative

CONCEPT 1: DOCK STREET

Attributes The principle characteristics of this conceptual option are the use of Dock Street itself as the vehicular crosslink between east and west, the establishment of a strong urban character and the part restoration of the King William IV Dock and Tidal Harbour. Dock Street would become a new boulevard defining the interface between city centre and waterfront and channelling all crosslink traffic away from the waterfront itself.
Effects The disadvantages of this approach would be the traffic impact on the existing urban fabric of the city centre conservation area, a possible tendency to restrict city centre growth, the creation of a new barrier between city centre and waterfront and the severing of the riverside walkway.

CONCEPT 2: CENTRAL LINK

Attributes In this approach, the Tay Road Bridge access ramps are lowered to grade on reaching landfall enabling the crosslink to be established across the centre of the site. This enables better integration and connectivity with the City Quay development site as well as creating a balance between city and water.
Effects It has less impact on the existing urban fabric and maximises the potential of Shore Terrace. The Earl Grey Dock is restored in part beside Shore Terrace. Again, this option has a strong urban character with a variety of spaces. The disadvantages of this approach are the difficulty and expense of altering the bridge access ramps, the severing of the riverside walkway and the channelling of traffic past Discovery Point.

CONCEPT 3: EXISTING WATERFRONT

Attributes This variant was introduced to examine what could be achieved if no alteration was made to the profile of the existing waterfront. The option uses Dock Street as a crosslink (as in Concept 1 above) and has perhaps the densest urban character of the options presented.
Effects The main advantages of this approach are that it maximises the development potential of the site and avoids the expense of altering the line of the existing waterfront. It also tends to focus attention on Discovery Point and Craig Harbour as the only sections of waterfront with major historic attraction. The rest of the waterfront is under-utilised although improved public realm and new uses would increase its attractiveness.

CONCEPT 4: LOW DEMAND

Attributes This approach addresses the possibility of a low demand scenario for the site in terms of economically driven property requirements. This prospect would probably only involve the redevelopment of existing uses or the development of sites already available with no alteration to infrastructure. However, the working assumption allows a degree of change in the site’s infrastructure such that Dock Street would become the crosslink but that take up of available development sites would be limited. The option assumes no alteration to the line of the waterfront.
Effects The anticipated result of this scenario is that Dock Street and South Union Street would be developed towards Discovery Point. This creates a valuable new urban axis of new streets linking important features and incorporating high quality public realm. However, much of the remainder of the site would be vacant except for the Olympia Leisure Centre and the Earl Grey Hotel and Casino, creating little impact and a negligible change in the overall character of the waterfront or its links with surrounding land and city centre.

CONCEPT 5: ESTUARY

Attributes This approach presents a radical change in the structure of the study area over time. The main features of the option are the diversion of the Tay Road Bridge to Riverside Drive roundabout and a crosslink from east to west accommodated in cut-and-cover. This enables extensive restoration of the former Earl Grey Dock. The proposal also incorporates extensive areas of land reclaimed from the estuary in the form of a levee to carry the diverted access to the Tay Bridge and two areas for new development south of the Earl Grey Hotel site and around the current landfall of the Tay Road Bridge.
Effects These proposals bring about an improved balance between city and water, a substantial area of sheltered water and the possibility of access for large boats to docks adjacent to the city centre. In addition, additional land for development is created together with increased water frontage and the potential for a wide variety of quality spaces and public realm. This option maximises the potential of the Shore Terrace area and improves all round connectivity, particularly with the Victoria Docks/City Quay area which can be seamlessly integrated with the study area and with the city centre. In practical terms, the areas reclaimed from the estuary provide reception sites for material excavated during dock restoration. The disadvantages of this option are primarily expense and the volume of land for development which would become available.

Contribution to Building A Framework

None of the five conceptual approaches to the development of the central waterfront represents an ideal solution. However each contains useful and workable building blocks of development which can be combined in different ways to produce a flexible and practical proposal. These elements include:

  • Dock Street Boulevard
  • Rebuilding South Union Street
  • Bringing the Waterfront back to the City Centre
  • Bringing the City Centre to the Waterfront
  • Building on Discovery Point
  • Integrating City Quay
  • Mitigating the impact of traffic

Civic Space Options:

Willie Miller, the founder and principal of WMUD, died on 12th January 2021 after a short illness. Willie was a much-loved husband and father and had a huge circle of friends  and professional colleagues. He was a multi-talented urban designer whose work had a major impact on hundreds of cities, towns and neighbourhoods throughout the UK and over the past 25 years. He also worked in Ireland, the Channel Islands and the USA.

Ines Triebel has been with WMUD since 2005, and she will continue the practice, drawing on her skills as a planner and designer. Ines has worked on place strategies, masterplans, policy guidance, regeneration and development frameworks, and the design of public realm and streetscape projects. She has extensive experience of working with communities, including charrettes.

WMUD will continue its long-standing strategic partnerships with Benton Scott-Simmons, Nick Wright Planning, Kevin Murray Associates, icecream architecture, yellow book and others. Please direct inquiries to Ines at [email protected] or contact any of the practices named above.