The Phoenix opinion column, which has been running in the Waterford News & Star for more than 30 years, as published in this week’s print edition
WILL the Norths Quays progress with Falcon Real estate and its current scheme? We have heard a lot of verbiage, but City Council believes that the company does not have the finances organised to do the development. The government (despite much criticism) has provided very substantial funding, (€110m) for infrastructure to facilitate the project and the council (despite much criticism) has done everything asked of it. The failure, if such there is, is a private sector one. The position will be clearer by the time you read this.
Anyway, the URDF money is still available and the site will, in most reasonable opinion, be developed anyway. The time scale is likely to extend as other developers are sought to do the work, if Falcon cannot deliver on their commitments. In a second bite at it, we should reduce the retail element and concentrate on hotel, conference centre, office space, housing/apartments set in a lovely linear park setting facing across the Suir.
Since its designation as a Special Development Zone in 2016 there has been controversy and political delay. Council CEO Michael Walsh has driven the project against insurmountable odds and deserves huge praise for that. He may be feeling pretty downbeat, but the project is not dead, despite the naysayers and gloom merchants. Would it have been preferable to have a separate Development Agency like the Dublin Docklands Authority who could have sought different developers for different parts/phases of the scheme? We have been here before, so often as to make the heart wrench, but we are nothing if not resilient. We have been kicked to high heavens by economic circumstances and government policy over the past decade, but remain determined, even if diminished. In the oldest city in Ireland though, confidence is fragile and a Waterford win is long overdue.
‘In the oldest city in Ireland though, confidence is fragile and a Waterford win is long overdue’
The question arises as to the extent to which the development of the North Quays has undermined our focus on the deficits so obviously present in the old city south of the Suir, although the blatant inertia and failure to invest in the city, ever after the council spent millions on public realm enhancement, makes many people sceptical of the ability of our property owners and retailers (with some obvious exceptions) to do anything other than complain.
What have local property owners developed in the city centre in the past decade? People who believe that every perch they occupy has a North Sea oilfield beneath it but who can give you every reason in the world for not investing a cent in presentation or property.
The UK buzz words for urban redevelopment are “levelling up”, that process where North of England cities are to be supported as a counter attraction to development in London and the south east of England. Our government nods in the same direction in its Ireland 2040 plan where development is to be encouraged in cities like Waterford. Recent decisions suggest that government knows we exist, but we still await “levelling up”.
Our historic city has suffered its fair share of brutal “levelling down” with large brownfield sites at Kilbarry, North Quays, Newgate Street, Bilberry, Bolton Street, Park Road, Exchange Street and so on. These are opportunities that “local developers”, if such a species exist, could have tackled at any time. It’s all very well to focus on the North Quays, but we cannot allow Newgate Street, Bilberry, Michael Street, Park Road, the Glass site at Kilbarry to be left rotting or operating as surface car parking?
Falcon Real Estate development arrived to a landscape of chronic development inertia, promising a single solution to long standing deficits. The council grabbed it with both hands. What else should they have done? The North Quays and Michael Street would be done together; retail, hotel and office deficits would be solved at a stroke. Abracadabra, zimzalabumba, borogeesha MOOLAH , as the late Eddie Wymberry so often said on the stage of the Theatre Royal. Remember when Fawaz Alhokair Group, a Saudi Arabian retail and hotel conglomerate, made a preliminary agreement with the local council to fund a large part of the project to the tune of €280 million? Have they vanished like the genie in Aladdin’s lamp? Meanwhile, we hope, like Mr Micawber, in the absence of local developers willing to invest in their own city that “something will turn up”.
Some people are greatly worried by the terribly named “sustainable transport bridge” (STB) proposed to link the Clock Tower area with the North Quays. Rice Bridge is a Lowryesque many-legged military crossing but it has some pretence at symmetry. It takes off and lands at the same level on both sides of the river as bridges have done since time immemorial and indeed as all new bridges in both Dublin and Cork have done in recent years. Our proposed new STB is designed to take off from an abutment two metres above present quay levels behind the Clock Tower and land at second floor or higher level in Ferrybank. When viewed from Rice Bridge it will be seen to be rising steeply from south to north. The semi-circular abutment will be pushed out into the river, behind a quay wall of sheet steel piling. Anyone looking at the build-up of estuarial mud at Adelphi Quay knows that the south side of the Suir is prone to such accretion. The deep water is at the North Quays. A bridge abutment jutting out into the river for any appreciable distance at the Clock Tower will cause siltation from there to Adelphi Quay and render marina berthing along the south quay front unusable.
The extent to which the bridge structure at the Clock Tower was hydrologically tested for such siltation is not known. If that has not been done, then it should be. In any case, given the current circumstances and probable delay to the project, a proper large scale model of the Clock Tower proposals should be commissioned to allay concerns about how this area will look in future.
The financial crash cost Waterford city over 2,500 jobs. Our recovery up to 2020 was very patchy as things improved, but unemployment was and is a problem. Waterford has a thriving small business sector, but its multinational (MNC) employment sector is confined to a few large pharma and health care industries. The deficit in IDA sponsored jobs across the South East is well known and has been highlighted by WIT’s SEEM reports over recent years. People with long experience in industrial development will tell you that the first question asked by all multi nationals locating a new business is “where is the nearest university”!
University designation of WIT as UW was the confidence boosting move Waterford needed, but this was not forthcoming. It would have driven (like UL and Limerick) Waterford’s development. Fine Gael promised it to Waterford, if elected, in 2011. They reneged. Instead, an institution which would have got university status in almost any other country was brutally crushed by government at the behest of the Higher Education Authority, the Department of Education, the university sector and powerful regional politicians. Investment in buildings and new courses was completely destroyed at WIT in a vicious act of politically inspired regional educational apartheid. New Engineering block promised since 2009 anyone? The simultaneous attack on UHW was another malicious move. The North Quays URDF monies, sanctioned recently by a Fianna Fáil minister and Taoiseach, ironically underline an endemic antipathy in Fine Gael to Waterford. They have given us a lost decade.