With intelligent planning, Cork’s streets can return as bustling thoroughfares, writes Stephen Fox.
Having started with the Council in May last year, shortly afterwards I had the opportunity to sit down with the Head of Finance to discuss the economic outlook.
My view was that although the retail sector still had some challenges I felt that the outlook was broadly encouraging; Cork was increasingly attractive to investors and we had a good quorum of developers delivering quality commercial space.
I did caution that the biggest risk would seem to come from an external shock: “for instance, if China were to catch a cold”.
Little did I think how prescient that comment would be now, with all sectors of the business community doing their very best to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and the necessary measures being taken to combat it.
It has been very sad to see the city centre so quiet in the lockdown, and I am very pleased that we have been able to keep the English Market open for essential foodstuffs.
This is not only about preserving jobs and businesses and incomes, but also about preserving the cultural lifeblood of the city.
The market provides a service above and beyond the commercial; it provides a visceral bond to the mercantile roots which have made Cork the beautiful, compact city it is.
Late 20th Century trends led to something of a decline in city centres, retail parks attracted consumers to their car parks and more recently online sales have put even greater pressure on traditional retail businesses.
Unfortunately Debenhams have gone into liquidation, and although its recent financial woes were well reported it is a shame to see an iconic department store brand laid low.
The Roches Stores building, however, is a wonderful retail pitch and the display areas within are well laid out.
It will be interesting to see what interest comes forward for the space and what the Council can do to facilitate that space being occupied.
Whilst it would be great to see a new department store come into the frame, and the prime 150,000 sq ft must be attractive, there are not many potential candidates and it may be that the space will need to be sub-divided.
It remains true though, that where balance of the various factors is right, retail still produces some of the most valuable real estate on the planet.
As a shopping experience St Patrick’s Street compares well with Dublin’s Grafton Street or London’s Oxford Street and Cork needs it to remain an attractive place for people to shop for quality goods.
This does need to be balanced with further development in the “experience” part of that calculation.
Cultural and Arts projects should be encouraged to thrive alongside commercial activities to provide exciting new reasons to visit the city centre and increase footfall.
Short-term COVID-19 measures aside, the pedestrianisation of the main shopping areas already taken was a clear step towards changing the dynamics of how the city centre is used and this must be built on.
Cork is undergoing a period of reformation; as with similar European cities the city centre is being re-urbanised and I expect the number of people actually living in the centre to increase over the next 20 years.
It is for the Council to work with businesses and other stakeholders to ensure that the city centre is enhanced as a place where residents and visitors alike can live, work, shop, eat, drink, play and learn.
The Council needs to support that by developing the infrastructure and the public transport links in particular, but it also needs to create a landscape which is attractive for investors and for entrepreneurs come into and to build and start enterprises.
This may mean that business models need to develop; Leisure has been increasingly becoming a complementary element to retail in city centre activity, but younger consumers seem to be turning away from the traditional pub and nightclub based model.
One trend seen across Europe is in operators which combine food, drink and sports or entertainment activities becoming very popular and there will be opportunities to develop new ventures such as these.
This requires a flexibility of thinking in reconfiguring some of the space in the city centre, particularly that above ground floor level, for other uses.
The new Development Plan is being prepared and although there will be challenges to overcome, not least the essentially medieval layout of Cork’s many laneways, my belief is that the future remains bright.
Now is the time to double down on the ambitions for Cork, to re-imagine how we use and operate some of the built assets in the core; to encourage people to look at the centre as a place to live, and to incentivise developers to be able to provide accommodation.
For the best examples of older buildings to be preserved and for new structures to be of a high quality, not just architecturally but also in terms of amenity.
To foster new ideas and provide an environment where they can be developed into businesses with engaged investors and local entrepreneurs.
Cork is a city on the rise, but it will take the Council, national Government, Businesses, Investors, Developers, Entrepreneurs and Workers all pulling together to help us pull free from the COVID-19 mire.
Lockdown will not last forever and we need the economy to start up again as soon as practicable.
The Council will do its part, our work continues on looking at our own portfolio and analysing strategic acquisitions, but funding and viability of projects will be uncertain for some time.
This also applies to the private sector, but Cork’s position as a growth city, with enormous potential, will remain an attractive proposition.
This week I spent time with one of the tenants in the English Market which has had to suspend operations entirely looking at ways that they could reengineer their business and get back to some form of trading.
As the world adjusts to this new normal we will look to businesses, particularly the SME sector to drive the recovery.
It is with this in mind that the Council has taken the decision to offer rent relief of 50% to our tenants with occupations on commercial terms from March 13, following the Taoiseach’s initial statement, with further supports available.
These are tough times for landlords as well as Tenants, but we need businesses to remain solvent in the longer term and by sharing some of the pain we hope to be able to preserve our tenants.