It’s almost 3 months since I wrote my last blogpost. A break was needed for reasons I may go into in time.
For almost 8 years I engaged in a process of commentating on a ‘positive Limerick’ mission. I wasn’t alone.As Limerick found itself in a place where its reputation was struggling, the focus was on batting negative perceptions back to the pale.
We were in the news for a Regeneration project that was not working. We had gangland issues, a dying city centre, a doughnut effect and two competing local authorities (one of which was winning the race).
In a relatively short period of time things changed.
We now find ourselves in a new era. The overwhelming mood in Limerick today is one of positivity. The Limerick 2030 Economic and Spatial Plan, of which many were sceptical, has now evolved to become something seen as deliverable.
In recent months the European Investment Bank has signed off on an €85m loan to help Limerick transform into “one of the country’s top urban office developments”, creating 3,000 jobs.
The Gardens International project on Henry St is well underway and should see completion this year.
“All great”, you might say.
Over the past 8 years I, along with many others, have bought into the positive Limerick messaging. I have often mentioned a quote that I once heard from David McWilliams:
If we have to actually learn – as opposed to experience – something, the best way to do this is through a constant process of reinforcing and continual repetition.
Regular reinforcement of lots of small messages repeated at timely intervals is how we form impressions, develop opinions and yes, develop prejudices. If the messages are constantly negative, we all form commensurate opinions.
Limerick’s experience, for many years, was negative. As a result, subconsciously as a population we felt negative. We became a defensive city. We looked for those negative comments in order to ‘stand up and fight’. Yet we seemed to struggle to actively find the great things about our city and to pump out a bright positive message at those who knocked us.
The evolution of social media channels, particularly Twitter, over the recent past changed the game in my opinion. In its early days Twitter was less aggressive that it has become. It was a portal for friendly types to engage, to share ideas and quite often resulted in the forging of new physical friendships or business relationships.
My experience of the ‘new Limerick story’ came via the Twitter channel. I suddenly realised that the passion we all have about our great city could be ‘sold’ through this portal. I came across many others who seemed to feel the same way.
Suddenly everything felt rosy. People shared images. People spoke about the good things our city offered. The negative mindsets found it difficult to get a word in.
Hand in hand with this new movement came a new thinking within the local authority and official Limerick structure. Councils were merged. Plans were drawn up.
A major UK urban development consultancy firm called GVA analysed our city and reported back with the bones of what was to become the Limerick 2030 Economic and Spatial Plan. That plan was embraced. City Centre sites were bought by the Council. Jobs started to be created.
The 2030 plan set out to place the focus back on our city centre. The official new Limerick vision was to create a city that was now seen as the heartbeat of the Mid West Region. It got to the point where anyone watching from afar could be forgiven for thinking that the seeds of a Utopian Limerick were being sown.
There can be no doubt that Limerick has made huge strides in overcoming the demons the once tormented it.
In writing this blog and my Limerick Leader column I put myself out there. I was accused of being a voicepiece for the Council. I had many interesting interactions on the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.
Taking a break from the Limerick narrative was needed. I am passionate about seeing this city succeed. Subconsciously, despite my efforts to switch off, I haven’t stopped thinking about the city I love.
Self-criticism is important. I believe that my commentary over recent years has probably edged towards a position where my belief in the new Limerick hype has occasionally blinded me to the realities of what we are facing.
Two things prompted me to get back blogging. One was a story that appeared this week in the Limerick Leader. Written by Nick Rabbits the story has shed a light on the Opera Site development, the lack of housing provision despite the fact that the original plans for the site had earmarked space for 161 residential units on this core city centre site.
The second thing to prompt me was a seemingly innocuous Tweet by Limerick historian Sharon Slater last night. The tweet contained an archive news report from 20 years ago. The report, from RTE’s Cathy Halloran, focussed on the development of what was then the ‘new’ Cornmarket development beside the Milk Market.
Let’s start by looking at the latter. Cathy Halloran’s story hailed the Cornmarket project as “The Temple Bar of Limerick, the centre of commercial and social ambience”. The project involved demolishing an entire one-and-a-half-acre site. The then President of Limerick Chamber Pat Kearney (who also acted as letting agent for the project) features in the report making no apologies for none of the existing structures being retained. They were “beyond redemption”, Kearney said.
Fast forward 20 years and what have we got? A concrete car park. A bunch of chippers that only come to life at 2am. The ICON nightclub that provides trade to aforementioned bunch of chippers via inebriated teeny boppers in need of a bit of soakage before they return to their suburban habitats. A few small office spaces and the home to Lyric FM.
Hardly Limerick’s answer to Temple Bar?
‘Cornmarket Square’ has no public realm. Its design attempted to make use of some stone features along with a glazed corner façade. Cornmarket did not regenerate a dead part of the city. In fact, it made little or no impact on our city’s economic or social life. The 44 apartments provided within the development were a token gesture.
Hindsight is always fun. The Cornmarket example got me thinking.
Anyone visited Steamboat Quay of late? Developed in the Mid 1990’s this project was a £20 million development of 170 apartments and 30,000 sq ft of commercial space. 170 apartments overlooking the River Shannon in Ireland’s third city. Surely this would be the start of an entire renaissance on the Limerick Dockside? What could possibly go wrong?
Hand in hand with Steamboat Quay came the development of the Mount Kenneth residential development. Back in the mid 1990’s this was THE place to live. It was on the waterside. It had new bars like Schooners. It had restaurants and what were then considered ‘trendy’ apartments. It was a stone’s throw from the city centre at a time when the Celtic Tiger was emerging from its mother’s womb.
It turned out the Steamboat Quay apartments weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Many were bought by investment funds. Many were found to be poorly finished. There was little or no public realm provision, no green space, no playgrounds.
Mount Kenneth was even worse.
I’m sure that at the time all those involved were in some way hoping to be part of the creation of a new Limerick. 20 years on the lack of design thinking, the lack of putting the user first has resulted in a ghetto. The Docks remain the same. The only success story is what is now the Clayton Hotel, a beacon standing in midst of a failed dream of urban development.
“The pace of change in Limerick, city of history and tradition, is accelerating. From being a byword for dereliction and neglect in many areas not so long ago, Limerick has shaken off the inertia of years and is restoring its historic buildings and constructing some of the finest new office blocks and retail premises yet seen in Ireland”.
Sounds kinda familiar doesn’t it? This was the byline from a commercial property supplement published on April 4th 1990. The supplement highlighted some of the newest additions our city centre boasted at the time.
One of those was Johnsgate Village which was completed around 1990. This was how the same supplement spoke of Johnsgate Village:
Recently opened is a superb new development of 14 houses situated near the historic site of the original walls of Limerick city. The development is mainly 3-bedroomed ideally suited to self-catering visitors.
One of the houses is occupied by a manageress, as residential accommodation and office for the on-site management of the development.
It is intended to attract several distinct groups of holiday makers to the area and special attention will be given to encourage visitors with recreational interests to base their holidays at John’s Gate Village. Sports such as golf, fishing, equestrian, sailing and boating are all available nearby.
So, 25 years ago a location almost in the heart of the city centre was earmarked for the development of a tourist paradise. Visionary one might think. Fast forward to today and we are left with another ghetto. Boarded houses dot this once utopian urban holiday village. Rubbish is strewn on the front lawns of the houses. Lighting is poor. Bonfires are lit on winters nights. Locally it is now described as a no go area. The manageress fled long ago.
I could wax on. I could look at Cruises St, a street described as the saviour of the Limerick retail scene when it was first unveiled back in the 1990s. With almost no residential, no post 5pm restaurant/bar offering and no cultural provision what did we think would happen?
Why have I felt the need to speak of the above failures in Limerick’s economic development?
Because they are all have strung up in our recent past. They all had great marketing brochures and PR spin. They all spoke of an almost Utopian Limerick urban future. They all, in my opinion, failed catastrophically.
Which brings me back to the first thing that prompted me to write this blog. Nick Rabbits’ story on the Opera Centre in this week’s Limerick Leader.
Over recent months we have seen the fabulous 3d visuals. We have seen the mock up video of the new Opera Square with people eating ice-cream and dancing awkwardly on a balmy summer’s evening.
The technology has changed since the early 1990’s but the message is still the same: we are going to create a wonderful new Limerick. New spaces where people can dance. Shiny new offices where Brexit refugees can be sheltered and eventually call this great city home when they finally get a DAFT offer out in Mungret.
Somewhere along the line decision makers, guided by whatever economic principles, made a conscious choice to remove 161 residential units from the most important urban development project we have seen in the city over recent years.
I am still signed up to the positive Limerick message but no longer will I listen to PR spin from City Hall and swallow it hook, line and sinker. If our recent development history is anything to go can we have faith in those who make the ultimate decisions about our urban future?
It is vital that we now get a deep understanding of how we failed when it comes to certain urban development projects over recent years. We must learn from the past or run the risk of repeating such failure.
We must all now stop for a moment and question if the decision being made, decisions that will shape our urban future for many decades, are the right ones.
Social media over recent years was used effectively to challenge the external perceptions of Limerick. As a unit the Limerick ‘team’ has won that battle.
I am now delighted to see that those same social media channels along with our local media are now being used to challenge our decision makers, to challenge the direction our city is taking and to proffer new ideas as to where that direction might follow.