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More and more flats being built or created from empty commercial buildings in Swansea

The view from Gareth Lewis's social housing flat in Swansea city centre (Pic: Gareth Lewis)

IT’S a weekday in Swansea, an above-average busker is knocking out Oasis’s Half The World Away, and contractors are busy converting several commercial buildings into flats.

It’s impossible not to notice how many upper floors of buildings on Oxford Street and elsewhere in the city centre are being given a new lease of life. New apartment blocks have also been built from scratch, and not all for students. More are planned.

While Noel Gallagher sang about wanting to “leave this city” in Half The World Way, more people are living in Swansea. Among them is Gareth Lewis and he doesn’t want to leave.

Gareth Lewis, who lives in a new flat in Swansea city centre (Pic: Gareth Lewis)

Social housing tenant Mr Lewis has moved several times before being transferred from a Pobl Group flat in Birchgrove to the group’s colourful new flats – part of the Copr Bay development – opposite Swansea Arena.

He said he had nothing against Birchgrove, but getting to his job in the city centre without being a driver was becoming an issue. “It’s a lovely area if you have a car,” said Mr Lewis. “It was two or sometimes three buses to get to work. I had an assessment with Pobl, and the lady put my name forward for a flat at Copr Bay.”

He moved there in August 2022, striking lucky by securing a top-floor corner flat with a tremendous outlook. “I’ve got fantastic views,” he said. “On a clear day I can see past the Marriott Hotel, the Guildhall and the whole way across to Mumbles and to Devon.”

He said the flat – one of 33 in the block – was very well-insulated. “I don’t think I’ve used the radiators,” he said. “The energy bills are very low.”

The Pobl Group flats in Swansea city centre which Gareth Lewis lives in (Pic: Richard Youle)

The 44-year-old lives on his own and works in catering and hospitality at Swansea University. He said he’s also done a couple of bar shifts at Swansea Arena. “You’ve got everything on your doorstep here,” he said. “Tesco (superstore) is like a corner shop for me, and the bus station is nearby. I don’t imagine moving. This is palace compared to some of the places I’ve lived.”

He added:  “Lots of flats are appearing in town. I think it’s the way it’s going. People need places to live. Housing waiting lists are huge.”

While his block was built from the ground up, other commercial buildings are being converted while retaining ground floor retail or cafe use. Gone perhaps are the days when shops needed upper floors for office and storage space.

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The upper floors of this commercial building off Princess Way and College Street, Swansea, are now flats (Pic: Richard Youle)

Taya Tortorella has rented a flat in a converted commercial building on the corner of Princess Way and College Street for nearly two years after living in Uplands.

“Living in the city centre makes getting to places so much easier,” she said. “Most places I go to are within walking distance. The building itself feels safe and surprisingly not noisy at all. There is so much on your doorstep living in the centre.”

The 26-year-old, who manages The Pizza Boyz restaurant on Walter Road, said there were some downsides too. “The cons would be that it can get quite busy around town on my front doorstep and parking is a bit of a mission,” she said.

Developer Peter Loosmore was behind the conversion and extension of the building into 19 one, two and three-bedroom flats. He said only two of the eight ground-floor shops were occupied when he acquired it and that now seven were full with the remaining one in the process of being fitted out.

He has also redeveloped buildings in St Mary’s Square and the bottom end of Princess Way to create 42 student and private rental flats, and is in the process of converting the upper floors of the former Next building on Oxford Street into 21 flats.

“I do really like the city centre,” he said. “I think there’s a lot happening which we haven’t seen for a long time. A number of the developments that have taken place are by people who have a vested interested in Swansea – people who live in Swansea. Coupled with that, in fairness the council has provided grants.”

Mr Loosmore, the director of St Mary’s Square Developments Ltd, said grants towards construction costs were key due to the financial risk involved. “Without the grant funding you would not see any of those schemes happening,” he said.

Development companies aren’t charities and Mr Loosmore acknowledged that the flats he’s created generate a rental stream. “That enables us to reinvest in the city centre,” he said. “I’m there every day.”

Swansea Council is keen for more people to live and work in the central core. It offers grants to registered social landlords as well as private developers to convert empty upper floors of buildings into flats, and loans to owners or potential owners of empty or under-used city centre properties to encourage residential, leisure and other uses.

“This will create more footfall to support existing businesses and help attract more investment in future,” said a council spokesman. “The transformation is already happening, with organisations like Pobl and Coastal Housing, in particular, developing affordable city centre homes for rent for local residents. This approach to helping regenerate city centres is not new. It’s happening in city centres across the UK and beyond, including Cardiff and Bristol.”

The former Woolworths store, Oxford Street, Swansea, pictured here, will become part of a large residential and office scheme facing Oxford Street (Pic: Richard Youle)

Other examples of new or planned flats in Swansea include the redevelopment of the former Woolworths store on Oxford Street coupled with a 13-storey tower behind.

A company called Kartay Holdings Ltd is creating 27 flats by redeveloping six commercial properties on the corner of Oxford Street and Union Street, although the ground floor will remain as retail. The company is also close to completing an office and retail scheme on Princess Way, and has plans to create flats on the upper floors of the McDonald’s and Taco Bell building on Oxford Street.

Kartay Holdings managing director Ian Morgan said he and others were keen to continue momentum “because we all want Swansea to succeed”.

He said: “Combined with other projects, the schemes we’re leading on will result in even more people living and working in the city centre, while meeting the need for more private rental accommodation.” He added: “Swansea needs to believe in itself and sell what we have here.”

Flats are being created above six commercial properties on the corner of Oxford Street and Union Street, Swansea (Pic: Richard Youle)

Meanwhile, housing association Caredig has planning permission for 18 flats at the former Nationwide building society on The Kingsway, while there’s a separate proposal for 26 flats at the Oxford Street Topman store. A further 52 flats have been created at Orchard House, Orchard Street.

City centre living isn’t for everybody. If you have a couple of dogs which like bounding up and down a garden, think again. And Swansea has its issues – a former Debenhams store still empty despite considerable taxpayer investment, and a churn of so-called “county lines” drug gangs infiltrating and then being replaced once police have moved in and made arrests.

But for local businesses more people on the doorstep means more hair to cut, more coffees to brew, more beers to serve, more meals to cook, more clothes and records to sell and, for the more adventurous, more tattoos to ink.

Another example of mixed use redevelopment in Swansea – pictured is The Strand with Swansea Castle on the right (Pic: Richard Youle)

Cities are changing and the pre-internet bricks and mortar retail landscape looks unlikely to return. Anthony Breach, associate director at think tank Centre for Cities, said Wales and the UK used to have an excess of city centre retail space and that the planning system tended to segregate certain uses, meaning for example only shops could be built in a city centre and only houses in the suburbs. “That’s quite an artificial imposition on how urban economies function,” he said.

Mr Breach said more people wanted to live within walking distance of shops, entertainment and work. “It’s encouraging more people into cities,” he said.

Developer Mr Loosmore, of Langland, said a range of tenants rented his buildings including some families. He added: “People coming here from other cities are used to living in cities. They are used to not having a car.”

Cathy Robinson, the joint owner of Swansea Bay Records, Plymouth Street, said she thought converting vacant upper floor space into flats was a sensible idea. “I’ve got no objection to anybody living there if they are empty,” she said. “They’ve got grants to do some of the shops up. Anything is better than nothing.”

She felt Swansea was heading in the right direction after “a bit of a rough time” with areas of it “looking in disrepair”. She felt things were changing. “It is on the up, the council are doing things, the police are doing things,” she said.

Andrew Harris, the owner of hair salon Boosh, Picton Lane, said the benefits to traders of more people living in their midst depended, in his opinion, on the type of residents. “If they’re local families, helping the community, that’s fantastic,” he said. What he wanted to avoid was affordable flats being  “somewhere to dump” people.

Mr Harris felt that in terms of its food and independent shops Swansea had much to offer. “And the market has come on tenfold,” he said.

Jon Playsted, the owner of Attica gift shop, Plymouth Street, said time would tell if the re-population of Swansea city centre was a success. “Hopefully they will fill it with people with money in their pockets and lunch hours in which to spend it,” he said.

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