Cork on the Rise: We need to bridge the gap between our commercial and housing needs

‘Tails are up and the cranes are up’, but putting roofs over people’s heads is far from top of the agenda, writes Property Editor Tommy Barker

Cork on the Rise: We need to bridge the gap between our commercial and housing needs

‘Tails are up and the cranes are up’, but putting roofs over people’s heads is far from top of the agenda, writes Property Editor Tommy Barker

We really, really should not have to remind ourselves.

But, we should.

Just like economies, and property development, the growth and development of a city (spoiler alert: this is “cast-iron guaranteed”) can, and does work in cycles. What goes around, and what goes up, might slide back a bit, stick a bit, take unexpected detours.

Broad-brush changes work and weave their way in waves, moving forward in surging tides, driven by positivity, by outside forces, fed by free-flowing finances and the drivers of capital, global forces and by national improvement drives and maybe even by Government plans, such as the current National Planning Framework 2040.

This latest national plan (coming years after the ill-fated National Spatial Strategy, of flawed hubs and gateways and “something for everyone in the audience” political promises) puts Cork (and Limerick, Galway and Waterford) up on something of a future growth pedestal, population and counterbalance-wise to their chic, suave and savvy Big City sibling, the historically favoured and force-fed capital, Dublin.

And, then, sometimes by surprise, but more often inevitably, the cycle turns and instead of waves of activity, we get stagnation, and catch up and growth cycles stop.

The peaks and troughs of such cycles can be years apart.

In the longer urban development view we should be talking in decades, if not in centuries, especially for a city as old as Cork, with its Viking roots, a royal charter that’s 830 years old, and a story that’s all about reclaiming land from marshes (hence its name-root, Corcaigh) for its citizens, and serving a broad, physically well-endowed Munster catchment.

Right now, six or seven years into uneven economic recovery after the brutal banking, economic and property crashes after 2007/08, caused by over-exuberant (ie, mad) bank lending and scattergun and almost unrestrained property development, things are back to being busy on Cork City’s skyline.

For the last couple of years, “tails are up”. Even judging by the crude tails-up cranes-up count rule of thumb, it’s broadly positive, though it must be noted that the tower crane tally is down a tad on what it was in 2018: it’s currently and solidly set in single digits, compared to over 100 tower cranes in the capital city, and that’s really only on commercially-driven, sectoral projects of the moment.

We’re building offices aplenty. Hotels too, but apartments and homes for people and roofs over heads which Cork’s citizenry can afford to buy, or to rent? Hmmm.

Cork’s not doing so well on that front yet, but the delivery pipeline is finally picking up from moribund levels of five or more years ago, with maybe 60 or 70 new homes schemes now on site in the broader, metropolitan Cork area. It’s a catch-up, but a slow one, and prices to buy and even more so to rent are already up at affordability thresholds.

Broadly, these tower crane beacons of construction activity are dotted along Cork City’s venerable river-divided water course routes, along its historic docks and quays, which having passed their shipping and mercantile prime, are now turning fair-face to 21st century commerce, financial sectors, digital activity and even a cyber security “cluster” as a particular Cork strength.

Again, it’s offices in the main, with a sporadic sprinkling of costly purpose-built student accommodation too, driven, don’t you know, by inequitable financial advantages.

A View of St Patrick’s Bridge and St Patrick’s Street Cork in 1956
A View of St Patrick’s Bridge and St Patrick’s Street Cork in 1956

Isn’t there an irony in the fact the only apartments which are apparently financially viable to build are for students, at major rents (€200 per bed per month?) in utter contrast the historical norm of digs, bedsits and squalid house shares?

On the broader front, Cork has contemporary development recently bedded down and bright and shiny on the south docks, with O’Callaghan Properties’ Navigation Square well-advancing on 350,000sq ft of offices, following on from the recent JCD Group’s One Albert Quay, and the likes of Webworks and O’Flynn Construction’s Elysian from the mid-2000s build boom.

Stand on Parnell Bridge or St Patrick’s Bridge before 9am any weekday and just feel the surge of people and a city back on the move, on foot, on bikes, by car and bus.There’s even a bit of sheen back on the South Mall, and it’s turning a corner next into Parnell Place.

We’re a decade (and more) on from the last expansionary surge from the old city core, which was spearheaded by the likes of developments such as Howard Holdings’-driven City Quarter/Clarion Hotel, and with it Cork’s first boardwalk.

It came just east of the traditional, central business district around the South Mall, which itself is also back in vogue, with new offices and occupiers, a hotel, repurposed former bank buildings, all back in rude good health having being written off as being in terminal decline in the 2000s.

We’ve mostly come to appreciate the old, as well as the new, having had to take the foot off the gas pedal for quite the long period after 2008’s meltdown.

Cork City’s current development spurt, thankfully, for a bit of northside/southside development balance is at the adjacent Albert Quay and, even more welcome, at Horgan’s Quay and Penrose Quay, with lofty ambitions for a pivot point scheme at the Port of Cork Harbour/Harbour Commissioners’ bonded warehouse site where the Lee’s two channels reunite in the tides, Cork’s very own Ile de la Cite.

The latter two quays, with JCD’s Penrose Dock going up at a rate of knots and Clarendon Properties/BAM’s HQ/Horgans Quay, north of the river, next to public transport rail and bus links, sustainably-sited developments for the very long term, long overdue. Sensible.

It’s just twenty-five years, or a quarter of a century, since O’Callaghan Properties made (controversial) first moves on CIÉ’s land on Horgan’s Quay, let it be noted…and there’s still acres there yet to come.

Further east? Tivoli, and grand plans proposed once more, once Port of Cork moves its container depot to Ringaskiddy, freeing up a couple of hundred acres of land first reclaimed “just” over 100 years ago, currently in low-grade use, but full of “hope” value, south aspected, with river frontage… property development buzzwords.

Two or three centuries ago, Cork’s future development was posited to be downriver, away from the marshy island and hill-constrained core, both north and south of the topographically-blessed Lee’s main estuarian channels.

That hasn’t changed, it’s just taken longer than expected. And will come yet in fits and starts, in waves.

Coming up to a 20:20 vision, not to mind looking out to 2040, Cork is — for want of a cliché— back on the cusp of change, in national terms. It has more vital variables in place now than heretofore, and there’s a cohesion for the next chapter, once broader, international events don’t set it askew.

Even against current historical and economy-dominating sweeps such as Brexit, and US FDI taxation changes, and certainly in European terms, the southern capital punches well above its ‘second-city’ or secondary weight thanks to port and air connections, on the Atlantic edge of Europe, to its third-level institutions, skill-sets and graduate output, tolerated and accented acceptance of English language foibles, and FDI-friendly national policies.

Locally, too, there’s a boundary extension on the way, so the city population is (artificially) going to mushroom.

A referendum is due next month on having a directly elected mayor in several cities, including Cork, perhaps putting the importance of the mayoralty in Cork back on a level not seen in over a century.

Port activities are making their way down the harbour, albeit at a slower pace than that oft trumpeted, though the waterside sites it will vacate, some with vaunting towers projects proposed, are beset by engineering challenges and, elsewhere, things like Seveso directives regarding contaminated sites.

Much of the ambitious docklands campuses need significant government infrastructure to progress: bridges, services, access improvements, flood relief. Much of that is promised under NPF 2040 targets, as are things like Ringskiddy investment, the M20, hospitals and the like.

Economic imperatives, matter too. Witness the embarrassing public/private funding haggling going on behind the scenes on the events centre site.

Its delay is a credit to no-one, especially as the financial constraints were visible years ago, even before the tendering process.

Yet, these are indeed the ebbs and flows of development, of economic forces, the calculations of profit and loss.

Bright sides? Lots of them.

Apple Europe is freshly enthroned in a much expanded northside campus, up on Hollyhill’s heights: its tower cranes of the past two years on the elevated northern skyline are sorely missed now on the crane watch count.

UCC, which has traditionally been campus bound for nigh on 170 years, is bringing “gown closer to town”: the university last year bought the former Cork Savings Bank building on Lapps Quay, and is due to follow that on a massive, more incremental scale with its business/finance/economic/commercial departments decanting downriver, to the South Terrace, on the old Brooks Haughton site.

When that happens, it will be a significant game-changer for the city core, akin in impact terms to UCD’s move to Belfield in Dublin decades ago, only in a more positive, reverse manner, with up to 4,000 students in this new city-centre campus. (But, in an ideal world, shouldn’t it have gone to the Beamish & Crawford site?)

Foreign direct investment (FDI) has utterly transformed Cork City in recent years, over a decade and more, facilitated by both CIT and UCC.

Cork’s international connectivity has been updated from its 18th and 19th century precedents, abetted by proactive developers (locally grounded in the main, with a few national names now also actively buying up sites,) and the IDA.

The evidence is on the streets, with the lilting Cork patois mixing with foreign, diverse tongues, and a pantone-range of skin colours. The welcome mat is rolled out, and the gene pool is widening, for generations to come. As it has, since the time of the Vikings, the Normans, the Huguenots, and now the south and eastern Europeans, Africans and South Americans: as Irish as the Irish themselves?

Increasingly, FDI’s focus is city centre, in contrast to previous decades, when development pushed to the ‘burbs, clustering around Cork Airport, down at Ringaskiddy, East Gate, out to Blarney and Ballincollig, and the like.

Now? There’s more concentration on the bull’s eye, the city and core, and that’s chiming with international norms of urban concentration, on city living, sustainable transport, short commutes, public parks and lifestyle offers, an area in which Cork with its waterways, coastline and broad culture can excel.

We’re not there yet. There’s a way to go. It’s an uneven, yet long-term rising city trajectory on the tides … and it always has been.

Please feel free to send us your own contribution on what you feel Cork's future holds, what direction you feel the city is heading and what you want Cork to be in the decades ahead? Find out how to send your readers blog contribution for consideration here.

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