AS the shutters come down on 2021, it’s as good a time as any to take stock of what’s been happening in Cork city and it turns out there was quite a bit of momentum, despite a global pandemic.
From the ongoing colourful rebirth of streets, to robot trees, to artful bike racks, purpose-built planters, increased street seating, improvements to greenways, new cycle lanes and the use of street art to revitalise bland gable-ends, all manner of little projects have been working away in synergy to improve the city's liveability for its citizens, transforming dark corners from drab to fab.
At macro level, substantial change has also taken place, most notably along the north quays - soon to be more than matched by ambitious plans for the southern quays - and out west along the Lee, past UCC, to Victoria Cross, which is cementing its position as a major student accommodation hub.
Head back into town, to South Main Street, where the 420-bed €40m Lee Point Student Accommodation banishes forever the notion of the grotty third-level bedsit. Designed by Scott Tallon Walker Architects and built by BAM on the former Beamish brewery site, it was this year’s winner of the “Living” category of the RIAI Architecture Awards, with the judges noting how it “re-imagined” a building type that had become “generic and formulaic”.
Also on the Beamish site, and just now ready for tenant fit-out following a painstaking restoration, is the iconic Beamish Counting House, part of a €30m mixed-use development which includes 70,000 sq ft of state-of-the-art office space.
The city has also gained a 7,000 sq ft public plaza that fronts onto the Counting House as part of this development, which will hopefully soon become an enjoyable public meeting space, already wired and plumbed for the likes of entertainment and food markets, and with plans to integrate it into the broader pedestrianisation of South Main Street. Over the next year or so, we should also see the opening up of Bishop Lucey Park (due to start next summer), the addition of two foot bridges over the River Lee to the rear of the Brewery Quarter (also scheduled to commence construction next summer) and the pedestrianisation of Tuckey Street, as part of a Cork City Council regeneration project.
The project which will ultimately see the investment of €46m in a redeveloped Grand Parade Quarter, by the new Brewery Quarter.
And imagine when the €80m Events Centre finally goes ahead? Although it seems as distant as the stars in a far-off galaxy, the word now is that teams are assembled and moving towards detailed design…maybe this time next year, a second Event Centre sod will finally have been turned at the South Main Street site, six years after the first sod was turned?
Back over by the north channel of the River Lee, more public realm opened up on the northern quays, where greater change has taken place in the past two years than at any time since an entire quay of buildings was knocked to make way for the O’ Callaghan Properties Merchant’s Quay Shopping Centre development in the 1980s.
If you last visited the city five years ago and paid a return visit today, you’d be gobsmacked by the transformation of the area around Kent Station/Horgan’s Quay and adjoining Penrose Quay. What was largely disused railway lands and a motley collection of warehouses is now home to state-of-the-art office blocks, including Wilson Architecture-designed “Building of the Year” Penrose Dock, a €125m investment by John Cleary Developments (JCD) which also saw the restoration of Penrose House (formerly Cork City Steamship Company building) and, on the other side of Railway Street, the ongoing €160m Clarendon/BAM development, where No 1 Horgan’s Quay, is completed and where tech giants Apple are shortly to embed themselves, and where work on No 2, a second state-of-the-art office block, is progressing.
As part of this development, and with expert input from JCA conservation architects, Corkonians can now see and enjoy the restored 19th century original railway Goods’ Shed, once lost among disused buildings, as well as the original Clerk’s House, also expertly restored, and the original Carriage Shed, whose vibrant red roof is a striking contrast to the edgy black aluminium skin of the adjacent Wilson Architecture-designed Dean Hotel, which has just celebrated the first anniversary of its opening.
Across the water, on Albert Quay, OCP has deals pending on its second office block, Two Navigation Square, with work likely to start on the remaining two blocks in 2022, but the headline news for the developer in 2021 and going into 2022 is what it intends for the South Docklands where it owns 31 acres. Just last month it unveiled mega proposals, pending planning permission, for a €350 phased development, starting with a new rehabilitation hospital on the city end of Kennedy Quay, and continuing on down along the waterfront with offices and apartments, restoring and repurposing the iconic Odlums’ Mills building along the way, as well as knocking the R&H silos and replacing them with a lookalike 54 metre high office building. All that is just for starters on the south docks, with much more development planned in the long term.
Back up the quays, near the bus station, work has also finally got underway on the €20m 15-storey Prism Building (CField Construction), the first of two ambitious projects planned for Cork by New York-based, Kerry-born Kevin O’Sullivan, president and chief executive of New York-based Tower Holdings Group.
The group is also behind the proposed mixed-use/hotel development at the old Port of Cork site on Custom House Quay, which was given the go-ahead by An Bord Pleanála in March, with work yet to start.
Nearby, on Albert Quay, JCD is awaiting a decision from city planners on a proposal to build a 16-storey office block on what was the site of the Sextant bar, demolished in August 2020, provoking an outcry from those who saw it as a landmark city pub. The Council is awaiting further information from the developer before making a decision.
Across the city, at Lancaster Gate on the Western Road, OCP is completing work on 88 apartments, the city’s first cost-rental homes as part of a deal with approved housing body Clúid, while in Blackpool, Clúid/CField Construction are building 112 apartments on Thomas David Street in partnership with Cork City Council. Blackpool is also set for a new “Distillery Quarter” if plans unveiled in November by developers Eichsfeld Ltd are given the go-ahead for 191 apartments across a number of blocks on wasteland opposite the Revenue Commissioners’ offices on Assumption Road, and in Hewitt’s Mill.
Back on Western Road, former furniture store Square Deal is no more, as work continues on the construction of student accommodation (John Paul Construction) at the Washington Street site, with units for more than 200 students due for completion in 2022, while further out the road, in Victoria Cross, Sisk is almost finished a 255-bed student accommodation project featuring several blocks.
Work at the site, which is owned by UCC, was interrupted by Covid lockdowns and the completion date is now Q2 of this year (2022). Further student accommodation is planned for Victoria Cross with permission granted in November for a c€30m 243-bed complex on the site of a former garage, to be delivered by Bellmount Developments. Additional student accommodation is being delivered on North Main Street (Bmor Developments Ltd), Carrigrohane Road (623 bed spaces at the old Coca-Cola bottling site/Farrans Construction) and The Lough/Bandon Road (554 bed space/Clancy Construction/Nido Student Ireland) due for completion in 2022.
Hotel development has also continued in the city despite curbs on tourist travel. The city gained its first micro-sleeper, REZz, on MacCurtain Street, while work got underway on the development of a 187-bed Premier Inn on Morrison's Quay, formerly the site of Moore's Hotel.
So, despite Covid, much change has been taking place across Cork city and suburbs in the past 12 months, and that’s before we ever mention the just opened stunning Marina Park, or the nearby booming Marina Market, or the ongoing improvements to the Blackrock/Passage greenway where a new pedestrian bridge has just been lifted into place at Blackrock Station, or the new ward and theatre at the Mercy University Hospital or the new runway at Cork Airport, or the almost completed new sports arena at Munster Technological University.
Looking ahead to 2022, further ambitious change is planned, particularly around the city's transport infrastructure, with major adjustments on the cards for MacCurtain Street, including the introduction of atwo-way traffic system, segregated cycle lanes, and improvements to the public realm, with increased seating and more trees and with neighbouring Coburg Street and Bridge Street also set to benefit.
New and improved bus corridors will be a key feature as the city's bus network undergoes major change as part of BusConnects Cork, with increased frequency of service, more direct routes for commuters, greater connectivity, simplification of fares and a gradual transition to a more environmentally sound, zero emissions bus fleet.
The re-organisation of the bus route is being done with an eye to the future, as one of the cross city services will be along the suggested route of the proposed €1bn light rail system, to give passengers a better understanding of what is, literally, coming down the tracks.
To sum up, 2021 was a busy year for the city in terms of innovation, development and construction, despite the global pandemic. Right now, 2022 is looking pretty healthy too.