The following is based on research conducted in UCD School of Geography as part of the ESPON Ensure Project. The project team is Niamh Moore-Cherry (PI, UCD), Aoife Delaney (UCD), Eoin O’Mahony (UCD) and Cian O’Callaghan (TCD Geography). More details here.

The regeneration of Cork City’s waterfront has received renewed attention by central government through the National Planning Framework, National Development Plan and the availability of new urban regeneration development funding. As a result, regeneration is underway with interest from private investors and developers across three distinct land parcels (North Docks, South Docks and Tivoli Docks) each with their own narrative and timeline (see map 1).

Map 1: Land parcels in the Cork docklands Source: Cork City Council (2017)

Waterfront regeneration in Cork can be divided into three phases as seen in the table below. The first phase dates from the 1990s to 2007/2008 and saw the redevelopment of the city and Local Area Plans (LAPs) for the North and South Docks being developed. However, the first phase was interrupted by the global financial crisis and Ireland’s property crash. As a result, very little activity occurred during the years of austerity. Thus, phase 2 from 2008 to around 2015 was characterised by a few development proposals, but little in the way of delivered projects. However, phase 3 has seen activity dramatically increase, particularly in the North Docks and the transition zone between the city centre and the South Docks.  This indicates a new wave of urban and economic development in the city and a renewed focus on the opportunities of the docklands regeneration.

Table 1: Timeline of key projects and events

The vision and regeneration of the North Docks

The regeneration of the North Docks is substantially complete. Some key projects include;

  • 2015- The re-development of the area around Kent train station and the re-orientation of the train station towards the city centre. This involved a land transfer between the state transport agency Coras Iompar Eireann (CIE) and private developers.
  • 2016 -Clarendon Properties in partnership with BAM Ireland secured the development rights to a 2.5 ha waterfront site at Horgan’s Quay (HQ development also owned by CIE. The mixed-use scheme is currently under construction, including the 136-bed Dean Hotel and 37,000 sq. m of offices in three blocks and around 2,900 sq. m of retail and leisure space (HQCork, 2019).
  • 2018/2019- The developers of Horgan’s Quay have reapplied for permission to increase the number of residential units originally approved through the new Strategic Housing Development (SHD) scheme.

The vision and regeneration of the South Docks

In recent years, the transition zone of the city and South Docks has been substantially built out, while a number of large-scale land sales have paved the way for the regeneration of the South Docks itself. Nevertheless, a number of infrastructural challenges remain to be overcome before the full potential of the South Docks can be realised;

  1. Regeneration in this area is complicated due to the mix of landownership and the presence of existing businesses (Map 2).
  2. The South Docks is still an operational port area with associated uses.

Map 2 Land Ownership in south docks

  • The Elysian development (Fig. 1) on Eglinton Street comprises a 17-storey “landmark” tower, offices, retail, a new street, amenity area and landscaping. The opening of the Elysian coincided with the property crash of 2008. Thus, the tower became renowned as one of the most iconic ‘ghost’ structures in the country, with only 25 units in the complex sold by 2011. The Elysian cost €150 million to build but was sold by NAMA to global property investors Kennedy Wilson for €90 million in 2018 (Barker, 2018).

Figure 1: The Elysian Source: The Elysian (2019)

  • The One Albert Quay development (Fig. 2) is viewed as highly significant in kick-starting phase 3 of the regeneration. It opened in 2016 and is a €60 million office complex housing the headquarters for international technology companies. At the time of construction, it was the largest office complex in Ireland outside of Dublin and “the smartest building in Ireland”. Having built a reputation for office parks in suburban locations, the developers (JCD) were attracted to the city centre during the recession, acquiring a number of strategic central locations including the Albert Quay site.

Figure 2: One Albert Quay Source: One Albert Square (2019)\

The vision for Tivoli

The regeneration of Tivoli is reliant on the partial or full relocation of the Port of Cork to Ringaskiddy, but it is recognised as an area of significant potential for the wider city and metropolitan development, and already contains important infrastructure such as water and power. It is estimated that a minimum of 3,000 residential units could be constructed to house a population of 8,000 and a working population of 4,000. This would be a significant increase as approximately 300 employees currently work in the area.

However, there are a number of key interventions required to free up the site for development according to Cork City Council (2017):

  • re-location of port operation at the city quays and transfer of ownership;
  • relocation of existing businesses from Tivoli;
  • relocation of SEVESO sites (Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) importers, Flo Gas and Calor Gas Ltd);
  • remediation of contaminated land;
  • improvements to public transport infrastructure including a new train station and improved walking, cycling and road access.

Conclusion

Over the last few years, Cork has made a strong resurgence following the property crash and financial crisis. “A combination of new policy measures, investment opportunities and development proposals see the city once again on the cusp of major change through the regeneration of its waterfront” (ESPON Final report, 2019; np). The recent regeneration of North and South Docks is heavily influenced by changing post-crisis national policy measures (e.g. Fast-track planning – Strategic Housing Development) and urban development vehicles and funding (e.g. Land Development Agency, Ireland Strategic Investment Fund). Meanwhile, Tivoli Docks is still an operational port area, although a range of urban design briefs and land-use plans are currently being prepared to examine the feasibility of regeneration as primarily a location for housing.

Aoife Delaney

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CAPPLANSPOTLIGHT

 

The Final Act of the Irish Electoral Cycle
We have entered the Final Act of the drama that is the Irish electoral cycle. The plot so far has involved harsh austerity, deepening neoliberalism, and widespread protest. But in the Final Act – at least in the play as scripted by the coalition government – these plot lines are expected to fade away as a new story arc emerges. Most immediately this will involve a raft of budgetary measures designed to return relatively insignificant amounts of cash to the wallets of various parts of the electorate. But, as the Capital Plan announced last week attests, it will also involve the promise of large-scale and geographically dispersed infrastructural investment.

While in one sense the Capital Plan is a mechanism in support of clientalism – allowing TDs the opportunity to bring the proverbial (and at this stage prodigal) bacon back home to their constituencies – it also serves to usher in the re-emergence of another central myth of Irish political and economic life: the myth of counterbalance.

The myth of counterbalance has been around ever since the Irish State decided to dismantle the walls of protectionism and open the country to the global economy. For various reasons Dublin has long dominated the country economically and demographically. The myth of counterbalance proposes to address this dominance by targeted policies designed to grow the economies of the other major cities.

I call this a myth not because such a feat is unattainable, but rather because, in Ireland, it has consistently proven itself to be. The myth of counterbalance emerges intermittently, the well-worn narrative dusted off to address the same intractable problem for a whole new generation.

Myth and reality
The idea of counterbalancing the growth of Dublin harks back to the Buchannan report on economic regions published in 1969. Buchannan proposed the creation of ‘poles of growth’, which would serve to counteract the unsustainable growth of Dublin. Throughout the 1970s Cork and Limerick were identified by central government as sites for targeted investment. However, while the official policy ostensibly favoured the creation of a counterbalance, in reality the recommendations of the Buchannan report were largely ignored, and later abandoned during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the Fanning report of 1984 on the impact of the recession on Cork, the notion of creating a counterbalance was resurrected. Fanning highlighted the need for targeted investment in infrastructure in the cities outside of Dublin, along with investment in indigenous small enterprises, in order to avoid the fallout from another round of global restructuring. In the report, Fanning advised against focussing only on short-termist policies and forgetting the goals of long-term sustainability. But then the Celtic Tiger came along and counterbalance was abandoned in favour of reducing corporation tax to a minimum and putting in place a series of incentives to attract a new round of foreign investment.

In 2002, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) once again broached the subject of counterbalance. Although politically weakened by clientalism, the NSS nevertheless put in place a framework to develop a number of ‘Gateways and Hubs’ that would act as regional centres of growth. There was a four-year gap, however, been the NSS and the publication of National Development Plan, which would link public spending to the infrastructural investment proposed in the spatial strategy.

In the interim, cities like Cork and Limerick launched ambitious development strategies that aimed to capitalise on the NSS. Cork Docklands Development Strategy, for example, inaugurated an entrepreneurial approach to development that transformed the city’s governance structures by inviting a host of private sector actors to shape urban policy. While the 2000s saw a new wave of development activity, the wider redevelopment of the docklands still depended on substantial state investment that, although promised, was not forthcoming. When the 2008 crash happened, one of the first programmes to be cut was the Gateway Development Fund for infrastructural investment.

Thus, the Celtic Tiger period of growth again failed to deliver on the promise of counterbalance.

The return of counterbalance
In the recently announced Capital Plan Cork is expected to get investment in key road infrastructure, an upgrade of Ringaskiddy Harbour and other projects including investment in a convention centre at the former Beamish and Crawford factory. The phantasmagoria of these plans was reinforced by a set of lavish visualisations shared by Simon Coveney on his facebook page. The Capital Plan is indicative of the re-emergence of counterbalance and, in the context of the eternal returns of Ireland’s boom and bust trajectories, the suggestion that we have exited the crisis and entered a new period of growth.

Dunkettle Roundabout Plans

Establishing shot from Season Two of True Detective… Sorry, visualisation of the upgrading of the Dunkettle Interchange in Cork.

But like previous iterations of the myth of counterbalance, we can see the contradictions emerge when we look a little closer at its practicalities.

Boundary issues
Over the last year, it had been recognised by Central and Local Government that the boundaries of Cork city did not encompass the functional urban area and that something would need to be done about it. A Local Government Review was set up to explore options. The logical solution would be for the boundaries of the City to be extended to more accurately reflect its functional area. This being Ireland, however, the simplest option practically was not necessarily seen as the simplest option politically, and – as was the case with Limerick previously – the solution proposed was not to extend the City boundary but to merge Cork City and County Councils.

Irish Examiner Cork MErger

Irish Examiner’s coverage of the proposed merger of Cork City and County Councils.

As reported in the Irish Examiner, Consultant Alf Smiddy and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly argued that the merger would create “what would be by far the largest unit of government within the State”, which they contended would offer Cork the clout to successfully lobby for devolution of powers. The report stressed that the merger would allow Cork “to act as an effective counter-weight at the national level to the current economic predominance of Dublin and the eastern part of the country”. Alan Kelly argued that it would “put Cork in a position that it can compete on a regional basis with the conurbation that is around Dublin”.

Not everyone agreed. Two members of the Local Government Review, Prof Dermot Keogh and Dr Theresa Reidy (both academics at UCC), broke with the consensus and produced a minority report that stated their disagreement “with substantial parts of the draft report, the main finding, and most of the conclusions”. In a piece written for the Irish Examiner, Keogh and Reidy argued that after decades of delayed decisions on a boundary extension, the “amalgamation has been chosen as an easy political option” and that it wouldn’t solve the problems posed by Dublin’s dominance. Cork City Manager Ann Doherty later called the merger review “fundamentally flawed” and City Councillors sought to challenge the legality of Alan Kelly’s plans to proceed with it.

Myth interrupted
Cork’s boundary issues highlight the problems underpinning of the myth of counterbalance in Ireland. While ostensibly it has long been a central component of Ireland’s policy landscape, in reality it has never been pursued in any serious sense. The Irish state has been adept at spinning webs of visions, stories of ‘what will be’ woven with colourful images, maps and descriptions. But when it comes to frontloading investment into the necessary infrastructure, successive governments have balked.

Indeed, it would appear that Ireland’s period of neoliberalisation and entrepreneurialism has exacerbated the prospect of counterbalance. The suggestion that a merger of the local authorities would, by a sleight of hand, suddenly make Cork more attractive to international investment is indicative of a jaundiced approach that seeks to leverage an illusion of transformation to entice external forces to solve Ireland’s problems of uneven development.

What then is the purpose of the myth of counterbalance? It is an ideal that, while not in any realistic sense committed to, is perhaps periodically aspired to by successive governments. But more often, and particularly in the Last Act of the election cycle, it is a vehicle to carry the illusion of vision and the prospect of hope. The myth of counterbalance presents the notion that there is a ‘plan’. It tantalisingly dangles in front of the voting public the prospect that, within the crisis-ridden theatre of Irish politics, a socially and spatially equitable Ireland can be achieved. It is just beyond our reach, it seems to say, just beyond our grasp. Without fundamental change, it forever will be.

Cian O’Callaghan

As a grand urban project Cork Docklands has certainly had its share of problems.  Managed by City Council in lieu of devolving responsibility to a separate authority like the DDDA, the process has been one of slow evolution, as the local authority within their limited powers attempted to stimulate developer interest, steer existing landowners towards considering redevelopment, and keep the project a priority within national capital funding streams, all the while adhering to best-practice in international planning standards.  Iconic tasters like the City Quarter Development on Lapps Quay and the Elysian offered appetisers for the banquet that was to come when the area twice the size of the city centre would be redeveloped.

Howard Holdings City Quarter Development on Lapps Quay

By 2008, it looked like the main course was about to be served when a number of large sites were lined up within various stages of the planning process, most notably Howard Holdings Atlantic Quarter that was set to become the lynchpin of the entire project.  Gradually the major players had lined up behind the plan.  But just as the steel and concrete of these sites was about to turn the ethereal work of the planning authority into something rigid and fixed, the gathering black cloud of recession cleared the playing field and scattered all betters to their proverbial hedges.  The Docklands project went from being a question of ‘when’ to again being a question of ‘if’.

One of the biggest problems facing the project was Central Government’s unwillingness to unambiguously commit to funding the infrastructural provision needed for upgrading the waterfront.  On the surface, Central Government have always claimed that Cork Docklands is a policy priority with their full support and backing.  However, this commitment has yet to translate into budgetary provision making the capital needed available to Cork City Council.  Such a scenario continues unabated.  Speaking recently about the lack of provision for Cork Docklands within the Government’s infrastructural investment programme, Minister for Education Batt O’ Keeffe suggested that

“There’s no point in me making predictions but the Government is committed to the Cork Docklands. It’s an issue we will be discussing at Cabinet in early September and you can be sure that Micheál Martin and myself will be to the fore ensuring Cork gets its fair share.”

Despite the less than certain assurances of capital investment, developers such as Greg Coughlan of Howard Holdings’ were confident enough in the project to invest millions in assembling sites and enlisting architects and consultants to construct lavish plans and hyperbolic promotional videos.

Artist Impression of Howard Holdings proposed Atlantic Quarter Development

Coughlan is currently facing jail for contempt of court for failing to supply a statement of his assets to investors pursuing him for €28.1 million for loans relating to a Polish development.  On the front of the Irish Examiner a few months ago, this news was presented next to that of planning permission being granted (though not funding committed) for two new bridges in the docklands, part of the irony being that Coughlan’s Atlantic Quarter development was one of those set to benefit most from these new river crossings.

Thus it seemed as if Cork Docklands had anchored in a kind of development limbo.  The plan had been rolled out to such an extent that it wasn’t going to just disappear into thin air.  The Dockland project exists, has been made to exist over the last decade through a few plans and strategies, hundreds of newspaper articles and speeches, countless conversations, negotiations, and schemes, and a couple of prominent developments.  At the same time the financial crisis was sucking the Irish property market into a sink hole, the gaping hole in the Irish banks and the staggering levels of vacancy and oversupply putting a more or less abrupt end to new development.  It seemed like something as ambitious as the scale of Cork’s Docklands project wouldn’t be enlisting any cranes for a while.

But recently Cork has again begun to rumble with the promise of new projects to replace those that have stalled.  In light of the sudden absence of the events centre first intended for Mahon Point and subsequently as part of Atlantic Quarter, Owen O’ Callaghan has recently slated plans to build a 5,000 seat venue in a development on Albert Quay.  In the same week as O’ Callaghan’s plans were announced, An Bord Pleanála ruled against Origin Enterprises 11-storey office-based development on Kennedy Quay (Irish Examiner). 

The most extravagant of these plans is Gerry Wycherley’s €750 million planning application to redevelop the Marina Commercial Park (MCP).  The proposed development features more than 800 apartments, providing homes for up to 2,230 people, a marina where they can park their boats (you’ve just got to love that feature), a range of community amenities, a visitor and science centre, the Ford Experience, which is expected to attract up to 300,000 visitors annually, and a new central plaza to provide a hub for the community, including a creche and library.  The aims are ambitious.   As suggested by the Cork Independent, the “planning application aims to transform the 24-acre, MCP into a vibrant, socially inclusive community within the City’s south docklands, where people will live, work and play, creating 1,200 jobs in the process”.  An article in the Irish Independent rather grandly suggested that “Cork is to defy the recession by pushing ahead…” with the project.

Artist Impression of Wycherley's plans for MCP

But at the same time these rumblings on the waterfront could be as far away from becoming a reality as Brando’s mumbled dreams of being a contender.  Wycherley’s proposal comes with a series of caveats.   He lists three factors “outside of [the company’s] control” that need to happen before they can move on the project.

“Firstly, we don’t know how long the planning application will take to process. There is no reason why it wouldn’t get planning permission as we’re compliant with everything but we don’t know how long it will take. Secondly, there is a serious infrastructure deficit at the moment. Centre Park road will have to be raised at least three metres as well as improving transport links between the site and the city centre. Finally, even if the other two were there in the morning, we couldn’t do anything because the market isn’t there. It would be commercial suicide to move on this without the market but we need to have everything ready and in place for when the market turns.”

All in all these conditions are pretty significant ones, which at heart expose how much the property market in Ireland has changed in the last two years.  Wycherley is hedging his bets on all counts.  The application is essentially suggesting what could happen with the site and certainly not what will happen.  It is no longer a case that Government capital expenditure can in any way be assumed to be forthcoming.  The Government’s precarious backing of the Cork Docklands project is now even less assured given the chronic hole in the public finances.  Just as significant is the fact that there can no longer be assumed that there is a market for commercial and especially residential property in Ireland.  In essence Wycherley’s proposal is saying what could happen in an alternative reality where the Irish Government had money and the property boom was still booming.  While he is certainly cognisant of these factors, there is still a hint of the blind Celtic Tiger confidence in the way the project is talked up.  He suggests that “Obviously, at the moment, the residential market has bombed so we won’t start building the residential part of the project until there is a clear demand and we can move units. But I’m confident that the market will pick up. The demographics are good in that regard”.  The rationale behind such good demographic projections, however, remains patently unclear.  For Cork City Council the announcement of the project is clearly positive in that it keeps the Docklands within the public eye and provides them with a more tangible bargaining tool to lobby Central Government for capital funding.  If the proposal is in line with the planning regulations for the site (which the developer claims it is) they will grant it planning permission. Yet there is something illusory about all of this which begs the question as to what planning permission actually means in an Ireland after NAMA.  Clearly from his own admission Wycherley has no intention of starting development on the site immediately, nor in any defined time period.

Perhaps lustrous plans like these are means of looking sharp for upcoming NAMA nuptials, a pretty peacock’s plumage to appease and please the prospective mate.  Because in most cases it is now NAMA that hold the power over Ireland’s urban future.  For sites to go into development the final say rests not with the developer or with the local authority, but with NAMA.  How exactly this new arrangement will pan out will decide a lot about the future of the country.

As for Cork Docklands, the project will undoubtedly soldier on, this latest episode one more in a its storied evolution.  While proposals like this one can provide media fodder that keeps Cork’s ambitions of density and sustainability front and centre in a news nation characterised by misery and miasma, it is important not to get caught up again in the tornado of excess that characterised the Celtic Tiger.  Cork’s fastidious record of strategic planning may have had the outcome of some developments receiving an unfortunately anti-climatic opening, but this culture should be retained in the face of less optimistic times.  What is important now may not be the grand statement but ensuring that when development happens it is to a scale appropriate to encourage sustainable growth.

Cian O’ Callaghan