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Limerick is a lady not a dame

Limerick Twenty Thirty is progress but sells the city short, failing to learn the lessons of rejuvenation elsewhere, focusing on quantity not quality, and not engaging locals

On Monday 19 September there was one city grabbing Irish headlines – Limerick. Unusually, it has remained in the news, as if in compensation for years of neglect. Ireland’s underdog has been thrown a €500 million bone in the form of the Limerick 2030 Plan. The fanfare for this much-needed recovery plan coincided with the launch of a new company, the Limerick Twenty Thirty Strategic Development DAC (Designated Activity Company). This meaty mouthful is the biggest single Irish commercial property development programme undertaken outside of the capital in the history of the state.

If funding is, in time, secured for this wish list what lasting physical changes does this plan bring to Limerick city?

Turning Heads
It is no coincidence that Limerick was, innovatively if not surprisingly, unveiled as one of Europe’s most attractive investment locations a mere three months after Brexit. The UK’s moment of uncertainty has become Limerick’s opportunity.

Located just twenty minutes away from Shannon International Airport, Limerick is doing everything in its power to encourage UK and US companies to set up shop in the Mid West rather than in yesterday’s Mecca, London.

Its Executive Chairman Denis Brosnan, saturnine former CEO of Kerry Group, will prioritise the redevelopment of 130,000 sq m (1.4m sq ft) of prime real estate across four strategic sites into office, retail, residential, educational and enterprise space. Unfortunately, however, the all-embracing vision is in danger of being no vision at all. Certainly there is no sense that anyone thinks Limerick has a unique selling point, or at least not one they’d be proud of.

The Limerick Twenty Thirty DAC is completely owned by Limerick City and County Council with an independent board which faces the arduous task of sourcing the money. The four developments that were identified to transform Limerick are the Gardens International Office, the Opera Site, Cleeve’s Riverside Campus and Troy Studios Film Hub.

The removal of historic names and the creation of historic associations is very telling in this bid to rebrand, concededly undervalued, Limerick.

Hangless Gardens
Limerick Twenty Thirty have so far secured €18m funds for the 11,000 sq m (112, 000 sq ft) Gardens International Office with designs by Cork-based Carr Cotter Naessens Architects.

Hanging Gardens on Henry Street - artist's impression
Hanging Gardens on Henry Street – artist’s impression

The existing five-storey eyesore was partially built by developer Robert Butler in 2009 during the boom before descending into NAMA. It is located at the former GPO complex and Roche’s ‘Hanging Gardens’ building on Lower Henry Street. Limerick City and County Council acquired the site together with the adjacent No 19 Henry Street in 2014.

The famous ‘Hanging Gardens’ were unique within the City, indeed (perhaps outside Babylon) in the world. They were conceived by the wealthy banker William Roche as a vast store, surmounted by enclosed gardens. “In the early years of the present century Limerick possessed a curiosity which was without a parallel in the empire”, wrote the Reverend James Dowd in 1890 in his book ‘Limerick and Its Sieges’. The design featured “stores under a series of arches ranging from 25 to 40 feet high. On top of these arches elevated terraced or ‘hanging’ gardens were created and the whole structure was crowned with classical statues”.

There is no obvious reason why the evocative word ‘hanging’ was dropped by the spoilsport neophytes. Presumably some misanthropic marketing executive advised against the negative connotations of the word ‘hanging’, as if it were or ‘stabbing’ or ‘stabbed’. In its absence this fascinating building is – gratuitously – rendered duller, and ahistorical.

Opera site
The ‘Opera’ site entered the local vernacular as such, not because it ever accommodated an ‘Opera house’ but because the eighteenth-century opera singer Catherine Hayes was born in a house on the block, before performing the wonders of world opera worldwide, though not in Limerick.

Opera Site - commercial offices at Bank Place
Opera Site – commercial offices at Bank Place

It is 3.7 acres in area and located in the oldest part of Newtown Pery. It was bought from NAMA for €12.5m, no song, by Limerick City and County Council in 2011 with funds made available from the Department of the Environment’s Regeneration budget after failure to secure investment from the private sector.

Following an open-tender process, ‘a special-purpose-vehicle’ set-up by the Council – under the strangely-familiar name Aecom – will carry out the works.

Opera Site - junction of Patrick Street and Ellen Street
Opera Site – junction of Patrick Street and Ellen Street

The Opera site contains 30 buildings, most of which are in predominantly intact Georgian terraces on Rutland Street, Patrick Street, Ellen Street and Bank Place. This development will be of mixed use with a spread of public and private sector uses and small-scale retail.

The proposed scheme will cost €120m to €150m. The conservation approach is to retain the façade only on Patrick Street – a policy jettisoned worldwide and for more than 20 years in Dublin as ‘facadist’ and fake – but to emphasise the retention of (no-longer-ergonomic) existing plot and volumes.

Where there has been twentieth-century intervention the design team has gone to town with proposed insertions such as the on-site replacement of the Cahill May Roberts building (1958) but in a grand new incarnation, completely out-of-scale, insensitively dwarfing its neighbours.

The proposed new scheme is a grainy shadow of proposals for a €350m ‘Opera Shopping Centre’ plans which was granted planning permission in 2006 as part of the famous Limerick scorched earth policy on heritage. In December 2007 Anglo Irish Bank had acquired a 50 percent share of this ‘exciting potential landmark’ with a view to selling it on to private clients but failed to do so.

Limerick 2030 map
Limerick 2030 map

Cleeve’s Riverside Campus
Of the four sites only Cleeve’s will retain its historic name. The eight-acre former factory site comprising 100,000 sq ft of existing space is located on the northern bank of the Shannon River with a distinctive chimney dominating the city skyline. The Condensed Milk Company of Ireland or Cleeve’s factory was established in 1883 by Thomas Cleeve, a Canadian who first came to Ireland as a teenager to work for his uncle. Cleeve’s dairy-based products were exported throughout the British Empire, the most famous product being toffee. The processing plant was sold to Golden Vale, a subsidiary of the Kerry Group, in 1974. Denis Brosnan’s former role with that company helped in its purchase.

Cleeve's Factory
Cleeve’s Factory

After being left vacant since 2011 the site was purchased in 2014 by Limerick City and County Council for €3.5m. It is zoned city centre (commercial) in the Limerick City Development Plan 2010: ‘To support the retention and expansion of a wide range of commercial, cultural, leisure and residential use in the commercial core area, (apart from comparison retail uses)’.

Troy Studios Film Hub
No building these days in Dublin is worth a second commercial glance without the inclusion of the term ‘hub’ in its name. And so we have the former Dell factory in Castletroy which closed in 2003 when Dell centralised its manufacturing at Raheen, on the other side of the city. Dell subsequently closed the Raheen plant, in 2009, when it shifted 1,900 jobs to Lodz in Poland. The company made up about 5.5% of all exports from Ireland at the time and its Limerick facility was at one stage its biggest manufacturing plant anywhere in the world. The loss of Dell was a shattering blow to the local economy and esteem, with many of Limerick’s citizens blaming the miserable local TDs who should have done more to halt it. The reuse of this building is symbolic of Limerick’s renewed confidence. Now Castletroy itself to be a – no doubt iconic – hub.

Former Dell factory
Former Dell factory

Limerick City and County Council last year bought the 340,000 sq ft building for €6m to turn it into a TV and film production studio. It is currently being refurbished and leased to Ardmore Studios on a 20-year lease. The studio will employ 6-10 full-time core staff. There is growing international interest in Ireland as a production location thanks to the benefits of the newly enhanced film tax credit scheme (Section 481).

The dropping of the ‘castle’ from Castletroy suggests that the studios wish to contrive an entirely false association with the Greek city that was besieged for ten years. At least, they will have thought, it diverts attention from the whole Limerick thing. Trojan work, lads.

Limerick exceptionalism
Residential figures for Limerick City are low, with not a single taker for the Living City tax scheme. Like Dublin a generation ago received wisdom has that middle-class Limerick people will not live in the historic city centre. This scheme is notably challenging this dreary assumption.

O'Connell Street rejuvenation - artist's impression
O’Connell Street rejuvenation – artist’s impression

Joining the dots
Good urban spatial design is predicated on the construction not just of buildings but also of the tedious routes and in-between public spaces. In the new Limerick there will be no place for such waste. Public space will have no role in the excitingly bland, iconically forgettable glass boxes lauded as the fangled antidote to Limerick’s economic slump.

One exception is O’Connell Street, Limerick’s main thoroughfare, which is to be pedestrianised, in one of Ireland’s major public-realm projects.

Lead designer, engineering firm Arup, in conjunction with urban designers Nicholas de Jong Associates, have been given the posterity-forging job of transforming the city’s main thoroughfare from an unappealing, car-dominated through-way into an attractive civic space befitting an ambitious ‘liveable’ European city.

Opera Site (aerial view}
Opera Site (aerial view}

This, along with Catherine Street and Henry Street, is one of the three streets identified, as key to rejuvenation in an earlier, 2013, Limerick 2030 Plan: an Economic and Spatial Plan for Limerick.

There are two characters to the two-headed animal that is O’Connell Street, once an urban gem but now chipper-central. The eastern end is largely part of the retail heart of the city; the western end comprises largely intact Georgian blocks, many currently used as offices and storage space or enticingly vacant. What takes from the enjoyment of the street is the large volumes of vehicular traffic through the city to the suburbs: an opportunity waiting to be unlocked. Here if there is any verve lies the future.

Second time around
If it sounds like we have heard the Limerick Twenty Thirty Plan before, it’s because we have. In June 2013 an earlier, €250m, Limerick 2030 Plan was launched, aiming to transform Limerick through the development of seven strategic sites and of 750,000 sq ft of much-needed office space, and by the creation of a dedicated marketing company to tout the city to investors.The intrepid imaginations behind the future of Limerick clearly felt the name of their plan was so good they used it twice.

The earlier plan was successful in securing commitments from the local educational institutions to move departments to the city centre – a not insignificant gesture to reversal of the retrograde decision to set up a third-level educational institution – UL – outside of the city in Castletroy. This was a coherent plan playing, as good urban plans should, to a genuine local strength. Sadly there has been little progress and hence perhaps this relaunch.

So will it all work?
The money isn’t there yet but at least Limerick has made it easy for potential investors to imagine a return. That could be a good start.

It is likely there will be new energy, though whether it will become, as Brosnan infectiously envisages, Ireland’s second city is another question.

The problem with these plans is that they fail to learn the lesson of a generation of urban rejuvenation, particularly in Dublin. Development should be community-led, rather than driven by well-meaning but, in particular, well-heeled outsiders; development should focus on reviving the best of the spirit of an area rather than imposing a new one; development should focus on quality not quantity; development should be integrated: there should be a sense of how all this will tie in with plans to regenerate Moyross, South Hill and Ballinacurra/Weston, a little further out.

New square and retail space at Arthur's Quay - artist's impression
New square and retail space at Arthur’s Quay – artist’s impression

In some respects it is a pity that rejuvenation of Limerick City will not benefit from tax incentives because the likes of Temple Bar were beginning to show how quality standards can be effected by linking tax incentives to delivery of key quality criteria.

The plans for Limerick are ambitious but, like the doomed plan for an ill-begotten meandering footbridge nearby, they need more thought, more attention to detail and more local democracy.

There is ultimately a sense that some of the people behind a possible new Limerick don’t at heart love the old one enough.

This is no petty place.

Limerick’s buildings tell a story of the development of Limerick and the social and cultural values of a proud and talented people. Architecture must be not only a physical presence, but also about history and aesthetic values.

There is a sense in Limerick, whisper it for we do not want to be cynical, that the city fathers are selling us short, aiming to improve this great city rather than to make it the best.

These issues – the vision – must be resolved before the focus moves mundanely to finding investors. Because Limerick is a lady not a dame.

Emma Gilleece is an architectural historian from Limerick