€15 million allocated by Government for Cork docklands development

Major investment in Cork’s docks are needed, not only by that city, but by Ireland too, writes Seán Kearns.
€15 million allocated by Government for Cork docklands development
Ford Factory Excavation, Marina, 1917

As part of a concerted effort by the Government to tackle the housing crisis, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Simon Coveney TD, has announced the details for a special housing infrastructure fund.

The Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund (LIHAF) provides funding for local authorities in the sum of €224 million to be financed on a 75%/25% basis between the exchequer and local authorities.

The fund is intended to unlock zoned lands for housing that are currently held up by infrastructural deficits such as lack of suitable road access, high voltage lines, drainage and transport links.

It is noteworthy but not unexpected that the majority of the funding (€112m) is targeted at the Dublin local authorities where the greatest need for housing is identified.

The second level of funding goes to Cork City Council and Cork County Council which is allocated €46m.

The remainder is allocated to Limerick, Waterford and the Dublin region commuter counties.

I believe that this funding approach is an example of how the Government can go some of the way to establishing a national regional balance in recognition of Corks importance in the future planning development of the country.

We have had previous attempts at regional planning that were highly politicised such as Charlie McCreevy’s decentralisation plans and the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) 2020 which took the Late Late Show approach to planning with a plethora of “gateways” and “hubs” that delivered one for everyone in the audience.

These approaches were scattered, unfocussed and were based on constituency rather than planning needs. This NSS plan was published in 2002 and since then Dublin has grown enormously and the regional towns and cities have declined.

In February this year, the Minister launched a consultation paper for a new national planning framework, ‘Ireland 2040 — Our Plan’.

The document lays out the current status quo whereby the Dublin City Region accounts for 40% of the population and 49% of economic output.

By comparison, The London metropolitan area, a global city of 14 million people, contains 22% of the UK’s population and accounts for 32% of its GDP.

Other countries of similar population size and economic profile to Ireland (Denmark, New Zealand, Scotland, and Finland) also have large city regions that dominate their population and economic output.

However, Ireland, by comparison, has become effectively a single city state depending on the capital to drive economic growth.

The growth of Dublin has been phenomenal over the last 30 years, and is most welcome as it is necessary to have a city with a large enough population to drive economic activity with a diverse population and a concentration of physical and human infrastructure.

However, Dublin has effectively sprawled into the neighbouring counties creating dormitory towns throughout Leinster, and is facing housing and infrastructural bottlenecks to such an extent that the 2040 plan consultation document raises concerns about the future competitiveness of the Dublin region.

Cork city, the second largest city in the state, has had growth levels consistently below the national average and, according to the 2016 census, now has a population of 125,000 people within the city boundaries.

This compares not too favourably to a 1967 population of 122,000.

When compared to the national growth rate over the last 50 years, Cork has effectively reduced significantly in size and is only a competitor to Dublin, a city over 10 times its size, in imagination rather than reality.

By comparison, the population of Cork County has grown significantly to 417,000. While the population of Cork city has declined in recent years, the population of the commuter towns surrounding the city have boomed in population.

Essentially, Cork County Council has been drawing people, investment, and government infrastructural spending away from the city centre, and the proposed amalgamation of Cork City and County Council as outlined in the 2016 Smiddy Report will, I believe, exacerbate this urban decline.

Due to vociferous opposition by senior politicians in Cork, the Smiddy Report has been directed by the Minister to be examined by an expert advisory group, chaired by the former chief planner for the Scottish Government, Jim McKinnon.

We await the result of this deliberation with bated breath as the future of Cork city will be decided here.

The future of Cork city is of national as well as regional importance. It has been a regional centre for centuries for the agricultural and maritime industry.

From 1917 to the mid-1980s, it was the centre of Ireland’s automotive industries based around the Ford and Dunlop factories in the Cork Docklands.

Ford Factory Excavation, Marina, 1917
Ford Factory Excavation, Marina, 1917

Currently it is the European Headquarters for Apple, EMC Dell, and major pharma companies such as Eli Lilly, Stryker, and Boston Scientific.

Apple alone employs 6,000 people, the same number of people who were employed in the Ford factory at its height of production.

Cork city has all the key attributes for a successful, vibrant and sustainable city.

It has an international airport, a deep-water harbour, a well-established and well-renowned university, a growing and ambitious institute of technology, and the Cork city region is a centre of excellence for biosciences, pharma, food science, and information technology industries.

It also has a vibrant city centre, cited in 2010 by Lonely Planet as one of the top ten cities to visit in the world.

What Cork lacks is the population density to be a major European urban centre, with many of these attributes scattered around the fringe of the city.

For example, the Apple headquarters are on the outskirts of the city surrounded by green fields with grazing piebald ponies as a result of 1980s industrial planning policy.

The key location for this new investment as identified by Cork City Council is the 140 hectares of prime docklands, located on the river Lee close to the city centre.

This is the only significant location available for Cork city’s future growth, and represents a massive potential for new development.

There has been some recent positive developments in the Cork Docklands areas, such as the No 1 Albert Quay office development (below) by John Cleary Developments, and O’Callaghan Properties’ Navigation Square which was recently granted planning permission, and which is due to commence this summer.

When the 310,000 square feet development is completed it could bring 3,000 office workers to the city.

Across the river there are proposals for the Horgan’s Quay masterplan (next to Cork’s Kent station) for a mixed-use development consisting of major hotel, office and residential schemes by Clarendon Properties /BAM consortium.

The Horgan’s Quay masterplan and office development is being prepared by O’Mahony Pike Architects, with Wilson Architecture and Reddy Architecture + Urbanism providing the hotel and residential development respectively.

These developments are occurring in the areas closest to the city centre and represent only a fraction of the development potential of the docklands areas.

It is noteworthy that there has been no office or residential development constructed within the boundaries of the North Docks Local Area Plan or South Docks Local Area Plan 16 years after the publication of the Cork Docklands Development Strategy in 2001.

This is despite many ambitious schemes such as The Atlantic Quarter; a €850 million 27-storey apartment and office scheme for Howard Holdings designed by Sir Norman Foster, and a 50,000 sq m mixed-use development for Origin by Reddy O’Riordan Staehli Architects which was part of an overall masterplan for the IAWS lands along Kennedy Quay.

All of these wonderful schemes fell by the wayside during the great recession and now occupy prominent positions in the annals of Unbuilt Cork.

While much of this lack of progress can be explained by the great recession, a major stumbling block is the inability to find the public or private investment necessary for vital infrastructure, and the relocation of environmentally-hazardous Seveso sites, and so it has remained prohibitive to develop the remaining docklands.

The €15 million allocated by Government in the LIHAF plan for the Cork South Docks is welcome here, but is not nearly enough to ensure the full realisation of the Cork Docklands’ potential.

The conundrum is that without the population densities to support public and/or private investment that these prime dockland sites require, there is no funding available to invest in the infrastructure to make them the vibrant urban centres they need to be to attract the population in the first place.

This is an investment at a national level that not only Cork City requires but the country also requires in the interest of balanced and strategic national planning.

Due to the location, scale, proximity, and prime waterfront sites, there is a great opportunity to build a new sustainable city quarter equivalent in size to the city itself.

  • Seán Kearns is a director of Reddy Architecture + Urbanism, Cork

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