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Building bridges in Limerick (by not building a bridge)

This is a hare-brained proposal dreamed up by people with a very shallow understanding of the city or the river, or their heritage

“What do you have against bridges, Emma?”, a friend quipped at me, the questioning loaded by awareness of the fact that I actually delight in them. Bridges are integral pieces of infrastructure making the impassable possible while offering us a variety of views, once the boatman’s secret joy. Growing up in Corbally, a suburban island north of the city, bridges connected us to the outside world.

The Limerick 2030 Economic and Spatial plan, published in 2013, proposes a new bridge for the city. However, the plans are wading through deep controversy about the design, location, funding, timing, public consultation process and even intent.

Limerick is a tale of three cities; Englishtown (King’s Island), Irishtown and Georgian Newtown Pery. Medieval King’s Island is where the Viking city of Limerick began, rich in national treasures such as St Mary’s Cathedral, Bishop’s Palace, and King John’s Castle. The Castle has been the main focus of strategic tourism investment and development in recent years. Coach-loads of tourists are whisked in daily to the castle and bussed away again. Often this is their sole experience of the city. This area is also on the doorstep of the Limerick City and County Council (LCCC) offices.

The reason that these visitors are not freed to roam the medieval King’s Island quarter, an urban gem most cities would cherish, is the neglected state of Nicholas Street. Though it is the spine of the island, intermittent incursions of dereliction punctuate Nicholas Street belittling the remnants of its historic importance. Bearing in mind the universal experience of historic cities, even of Dublin, it is mind-boggling how this area did not benefit from a major conservation strategy during the boom years. Even more mystifying is why it wasn’t made a priority in the Limerick 2030 plan. This means it may well be another two decades before this area is even addressed.

One of three proposed bridge designs by AECOM
One of three proposed bridge designs by AECOM
Aerial view of proposed bridge in Fáilte Ireland report
Aerial view of proposed bridge in Fáilte Ireland report

Coinciding with the release of the 2030 Plan prepared by consultants GVA and AECOM was the establishment of the Limerick Economic Forum. This advisory group consists of high-profile individuals such as Denis Brosnan (former Head of Kerry Group); Loretta Brennan Glucksman (former Chair of the American Ireland Fund); John Moran (former Secretary General of the Department of Finance); Conn Murray, CEO of LCCC; Don Barry, President of the University of Limerick; John Herlihy, Vice President of Google Ireland; and Paul Rellis, Vice President of Microsoft Ireland. Though these worthies mean well, it may be significant that King’s Island does not benefit any of their vested interests.

LCCC realised that the King’s Island issue will take many years to resolve. For LCCC the conundrum is simply how to spirit visitors from the castle to the revamped Arthur’s Quay Shopping Centre without dirtying their shoes in the historic city.

They can of course walk over Thomond Bridge, down Clancy’s Strand, and across Sarsfield Bridge. But, human nature encourages us to take the shortest route which would mean Nicholas Street. Their solution – bypass Nicholas Street by creating a walkway over the river to the revamped commercial district.

In early 2014 Fáilte Ireland commissioned a ‘Tourism Proposition and Interpretation Framework for Limerick City and County’ by Sherwood Associates (working with Denis Byrne Architects, Cleary Connolly – an artistic partnership, and local historian, Dr John Logan). It proposed the construction of a new connection along the river’s edge. Their associated bridge proposal went from Shannon Rowing Club to the Battery beside the Potato Market. This bridge would follow the natural line where the tidal Shannon water and the Abbey waters meet. It was this proposal which convinced Finance Minister Michael Noonan to pledge €6m in his October 2014 budget towards the bridge. Like something out of a soap opera cue the anonymous philanthropic donor who has given €10m towards this bridge. No strings attached we are told except that he (or she) can never be named.

After much speculation the local paper outed JP McManus as the inevitable bigwig benefactor (Limerick Life, ‘We mustn’t look JP’s gifthorse in the mouth’, 30 June 2016).

With funding secured, LCCC decided that the Sherwood Associates bridge did not fit in with its primary focus – of driving tourists to the shiny new retail areas created by the Limerick 2030 Plan. It instead bastardised this well-researched proposal so that it would be a bridge stretching from King John’s Castle to Arthur’s Quay Park. It would cross the mouth of the Abbey River to the Curragower Boat Club, cutting off the most resonant historic views in the city. This blatantly contravenes the Council’s own Development Plan (Section 11.3) concerning the protection of historic linear views and prospects, river prospects and approach vistas of the city. It does, however, avert the necessity for tourists to walk through the medieval streets, offering a river route instead.

Proposed bridge will obstruct Curragower boat club
Proposed bridge will obstruct Curragower boat club
Bridge will lead visitors from King John's Castle to Arthur's Quay
Bridge will lead visitors from King John’s Castle to Arthur’s Quay

The next stage was a tender for the Technical Feasibility Report won by AECOM which estimated the cost of the bridge at €16-18m. Its three concept designs are huge and predictable Calatrava-like white harps spanning the mouth of the Abbey. As to the design process, a spokesperson for LCCC said: “The first thing we will do from here is decide how we approach the design stage, whether by way of an open competition or a tender to procure a single team. Regardless, consultation with the key stakeholders, particularly our council members, will be at the heart of the decision-making process…the Council members will then have to approve the design before it can go to An Bord Pleanála”. Limerick Councillors will be voting later this month, with the mind-concentrating threat that if they say no to the bridge the money is off the table. LCCC maintains that the design process is open. However at a presentation made by Senior Executive Planner Kieran Reeves to the councillors on 23 June, his two examples of ‘iconic’ bridges, Derry’s Peace Bridge and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, happened to be both designed by AECOM and Wilkinson Eyre Architects.

It is hard to tell how the councillors will vote. Labour Councillor Joe Leddin commented:
“In terms of the ongoing redevelopment of the city the placement of a pedestrian bridge is not a priority in the context of key strategic sites such as the Opera Centre, Hanging Gardens, and Nicholas Street which is an old historic street adjacent to King John’s Castle. Above all the river views that have existed in this part of the city that showcase the Hunt Museum, Abbey River and marina and the old Curragower boat club, will be lost forever”.

Little information has been released to the public in the three years since LCCC first mooted the idea of a bridge. In failing to organise public information meetings it has fallen to groups such as the Irish Planning Institute in collaboration with the Royal Town Planning Institute Ireland to hold panel discussions on the Limerick 2030 Plan.

A local group of concerned citizens has set up the ‘Footbridge Folly Action Group’. Speaking on behalf of the group, Brian Leddin, an engineer, stated: “This is a hare-brained proposal dreamed up by people with a very shallow understanding of the city or the river, or their heritage”. The Limerick Association of An Taisce, another stakeholder not consulted, expressed concerns for the permanent destruction of the historic views. The Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society PR Officer John Elliot said of the proposed location: “The Limerick Main Drainage weir, breakwater pontoon, Mathew & Sylvester O’Halloran bridges and the marina at the Custom House already pose difficulty for boat users trying to navigate the cluttered Shannon at this point. Adding a footbridge to this would only hinder riverine traffic even further”.

The bridge itself is just symptomatic of the problem when urban design is driven by businessmen whose motivations are largely economic. There is no regard for the routes to these buildings, and how people experience such in-between urban spaces. This bridge leaves King’s Island still on the long finger. Why doesn’t LCCC take a modest portion of the €18m and use it for the salaries of a team of urban designers? It’s no flashy quick-fix solution but it could make Limerick a more attractive city in the long-term, especially for residents.

Ironically the Limerick 2030 Plan opens with a quote by the American urban activist Jane Jacobs which rings true here and now: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”.

By Emma Gilleece