Port of Cork moves out of iconic Custom House

Site is set to be redeveloped into a 34-storey hotel and retail development
Port of Cork moves out of iconic Custom House

The Custom House Quay site and buildings were sold for €5m in 2017 to Tower Development Properties. Picture: Dan Linehan

CORK’S iconic Custom House, an intrinsic part of the city’s maritime history, is no longer home to the Port of Cork, ending a century-long relationship that witnessed major changes to the port.

Staff at corporate headquarters vacated the premises last Friday for a move to offices closer to operations in Tivoli and Ringaskiddy.

A spokesperson for the Port of Cork company said the move was bittersweet, but they were looking forward to exciting times ahead.

“The Customs House has been at the heart of the Port of Cork for over 100 years and our move out, while sad in some ways, also heralds a new and exciting era for the company.

Custom House Quay: At the heart of the Port of Cork for over a century. Picture: Ted Murphy
Custom House Quay: At the heart of the Port of Cork for over a century. Picture: Ted Murphy

“Our headquarters teams have moved to port offices closer to our operations in Tivoli and Ringaskiddy as we formulate our plans for the future,” the spokesperson said.

The company leaves behind a building that was the focal point of port activities since 1904.

On a wedge-shaped circa two-acre site at Custom House Quay, where the north and south channels of the River Lee meet, the site and buildings on it, which include 200-year-old bonded warehouses, were sold for €5m in 2017 to Tower Development Properties Ltd, headed up by Kerry-born, US-based developer Kevin O’Sullivan.

The proposed hotel to be built at Custom House Quay.
The proposed hotel to be built at Custom House Quay.

His plans for a 240-bedroom skyscraper hotel on the site (at 34 storeys, it would be twice the height of the Elysian) are with An Bord Pleanála following an appeal of Cork City Council’s decision to give it the go-ahead.

A decision is due from the board by March 22. Conor Lee, director of operations with Tower Holdings Group, said he is expecting An Bord Pleanála to seek an extension and that it will “probably be July”.

The application, which includes making provision for the city’s maritime heritage, as well as food and beverage outlets, a distillery, some office space and a vast area of waterfront public realm, is opposed by the Irish Georgian Society.

Free State soldiers at Custom House Quay in Cork during the Irish Civil War 15/08/1922. 
Free State soldiers at Custom House Quay in Cork during the Irish Civil War 15/08/1922. 

Mr O’Sullivan’s Tower Holdings Group, which will develop the Custom House Quay site, is also behind plans for the €20m Prism Building, a 15-storey 6,000sq m office space planned for a small triangular derelict site (310 sq m) at Clontarf St in Cork, next to Parnell Place bus station.

However, while the sod was turned on the site almost a year ago, very little has happened since.

Mr Lee said commercial construction was currently “in no man’s land” on foot of Covid-19 restrictions, adding that the pandemic was making the commercial market “a bit iffy for investors and developers” everywhere.

He said they intended to go ahead with the Prism Building once it was possible to do so. The Prism is inspired by the iconic Flatiron Building on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

While the pandemic and planning appeals pose challenges for Mr O’Sullivan, his brother Donal, with whom he emigrated to New York in 1986, faces a far more serious situation. He was charged in a federal court in Brooklyn last July with defrauding union benefit funds. The alleged crimes relate to his conduct at Navillus Contracting, a company he set up with his brother in 1987, but which Kevin moved on from in 2006, when he founded his own company, Times Square Construction.

A busy docklands scene at Custom House Quay, Cork in the 1920s.
A busy docklands scene at Custom House Quay, Cork in the 1920s.

Donal, who is a passive investor in Tower Development Properties Ltd, was Navillus president. He, his sister, Helen O’Sullivan (treasurer of Navillus) and Padraig Naughton (its financial controller) were charged last year with wire fraud, mail fraud, embezzlement from employee benefit funds, submission of false remittance reports to union benefit funds and conspiracy to commit those crimes.

Donal was released on a $500,000 bond; Ms O’Sullivan and Mr Naughton were each released on $250,000 bonds.

In August , Mr O’Sullivan, who has protested his innocence, temporarily stood down as CEO of Navillus Contracting.

The US attorney’s office confirmed to the Irish Examiner this week that the trial has been scheduled for October 4-25, 2021.

Navillus is one of the biggest building firms in New York. It is involved in several major projects in Manhattan, including the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, and One Vanderbilt.

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