The reimaging of Cork's South Docks that's a quarter-century in the making

Plans for the overhaul of the city's docklands were first mooted back in 1995
The reimaging of Cork's South Docks that's a quarter-century in the making

A frontal view of the re-purposed Odlums building on Kennedy Quay. Embargoed to Nov 24.

WHAT a difference a quarter of a century makes.

In 1995, Cork’s ‘new city’ docks and quays development were first mooted for a remote-seeming 17-acre site downriver of the city centre at Horgan’s Quay.

Its potential was spotted early by developer Owen O’Callaghan of O’Callaghan Properties (OCP). His attempt to buy it became mired in political controversy and he pulled out, leaving the site stalled for nearly two decades.

Fast-forward to 2021 and there’s a new viewing point for the eventual evolution of Horgan’s Quay, with the Dean Hotel up and running; office deals done by BAM/Clarendon, including with Apple; and major office blocks completed and fully let by JCD Group alongside, on Penrose Quay/Penrose Dock.

Cork South Docks proposal from O'Callaghan Properties.
Cork South Docks proposal from O'Callaghan Properties.

In between is the Port of Cork site, the city’s most iconic opportunity at the River’s Lee’s two-channel confluence, with its lofty hotel skyscraper plans. Also visible is the 2005-completed City Quarter by the departed Howard Holdings, and new office blocks along Albert Quay. These have been done, variously, by Howard Holdings, OCP and JCD Group, with future developments set to top the 17-storey Elysian, including at the Sextant/Carey Tools sites, now recently vacated and with the Sextant demolished.

The best viewing point of all this activity is from the roof of Navigation Square, a different OCP Cork docks scheme to what was once envisaged for Horgan’s Quay (a technology park was the proposed anchor in ’95) across the Lee.

Two of the four blocks in this 350,000sq ft offices scheme are completed and, more significantly, it’s a stepping stone for what’s to come over the next 25 years.

From Navigation Square’s upper floors, there is a view stretching east and south over Cork’s South Docks towards the Marina, spanning 31 acres now in OCP’s control after a €47.5m acquisition deal with the Origin Group.

At the far end of this OCP land, well down along Centre Park Road, an orange windsock is just about discernible.

Getting development out this far is second-generation OCP developer Brian O’Callaghan’s company, currently active in commercial and residential developments in and around the city.

Given the timelines involved in such masterplans, a future generation of O’Callaghans may well wrap up final development of the enormous OCP site.

It’s just one of a number of ownerships in the South Docks (including Glenveagh Properties, the McCarthy family, the Comer Brothers, and Gerry Wycherley’s Marina Commercial Park) and is projected to accommodate 20,000 residents as the city’s population is planned to grow by 50% by 2040 under National Development Plan guidelines, and the first phase is coming out of the traps.

This week plans were unveiled for the first phase of development, under OCP’s branded ‘South Docks’ development banner, worth €350m, on ‘just’ a 4.1-acre plot of the 31-acre site, closest to the city centre and to City Hall.

As reported by the Irish Examiner this week, the ambitious ‘first phase’ includes a 122,000sq ft 130-bed rehabilitation hospital to be owned by French health and nursing home operators Orpea; 450,000sq ft of offices; two apartment blocks of about 80 units each, one for the rental sector, the other for owner-occupiers.

The latter may be facilitated (by what Brian O’Callaghan says is “a game changer”) under Housing for All measures announced in September, via yet-to-be-finalised 20% grants to residential purchasers under proposed ‘Croí Cónaithe’ (heart of towns) measures.

Mr O’Callaghan said this proposal was “working its way through” whatever it needs to work through and “will be a gamechanger”.

The company is building its last apartment block upriver, on Lancaster Quay, after a cost-rental deal with approved housing body Clúid, which he noted worked out well given other cost constraints on apartment delivery.

OCP’s South Docks scheme envisages demolition of the early 1900s-built concrete grain silos with the R&H Hall logo still up top, but unused since 2009 and which the company says are not adaptable to new purposes, despite initially considering and researching all development options for it.

“We started out with a total open book but what we came up with is it was
impossible to keep in its existing form: from an engineering point of view, it’s impossible to keep,” Mr O’Callaghan told the Irish Examiner, arguing that it has structural and building reg compliance issues and that, “The only thing we could do is to knock it and mirror its current form.”

That includes an emphasis on vertical building, oval/circular windows on the top of the 54m replacement office building (just taller than the current silos) and integrating some of the industrial archaeology, grain hoppers, etc in displays.

There’s already been a welcome for plans to redevelop the red-brick Odlums building, built in two stages in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the most identifiable structure on the south quays, bar the R&H Hall silos.

It’s planned to develop it for mixed uses, including a cinema similar to the art deco Stella in Rathmines in Dublin; apartments and offices; a glass rooftop restaurant with a 360-degree view; and a food court at ground level perhaps similar to the El Nacional in Barcelona, or the Powerscourt Centre in Dublin, with boutique shopping and other leisure uses.

Designed by Henry J Lyons architects, and expected to be cut through by a proposed light rail line from Kent Rail Station/Horgan’s Quay, South Docks’ first phase will kick off in Q1 2023 with the Orpea rehab hospital (subject to planning) and 450,000sq ft of offices, starting when OCP finishes the two remaining office blocks, of 31,000sq ft and 95,000sq ft, at Navigation Square.

“We plan to start as soon as this is let,” Brian O’Callaghan said Monday in the c 80,000 sq ft block B/building two. He indicated that several letting deals are in the offing, (Facebook and Peloton had been mooted earlier this year, but have since scaled back plans during Covid-19 times) with interested parties described as “tech, financial services, the usual mix”.

The South Docks site is expected to be cut though by a nationally proposed light rail line from Ballincollig to Mahon, passing through Kent Station, and linking the pedestrianised South Docks wharfs to Horgan’s Quay — which, in a roundabout way, is where OCP aimed to come in about 25 years ago.

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