Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The revised drawing of the Tower Hotel/Lombard Street proposal presented by Neville Hotels.

THE planning debacle about the proposed redevelopment of 36 The Mall and the adjacent north side of Lombard Street shows that we seem forever destined to repeat the same mistakes.

Twenty-five years ago, Waterford Corporation removed two houses, 16 and 17 Lady Lane from the council’s list of preserved structures. Number 16 Lady Lane dates from circa 1720. It is 300 years old. The Council then gave permission for demolition to facilitate the construction of apartments for a local charity.

The decision was appealed and An Bord Pleanála refused the demolition. It was widely forecast here and elsewhere that this would happen.

Eventually, revised planning permission was granted which mostly saved the buildings and their important internal features, while creating some new apartments. It was a compromise, like many things in life. Lady Lane would now be immeasurably poorer if the two early 18th Century houses had been demolished.

We keep trying to find some magic wand to change the perceived attractiveness of the city in the hope of increasing business footfall. We want to be sexy despite the fact that many of our own local property and business class are largely moribund, barring obvious exceptions.

The idea that investment and hard work over a long period by every stakeholder in the city is required, allied to Council input with a serious presentation and marketing, is only slowly dawning on us. Most of our own wealthy burghers are utterly risk averse.

People in towns and cities all over Europe are refurbishing and repairing historic buildings. Take post World War II Germany for example. Frankfurt has completely rebuilt its Altstadt (Old Town) at enormous cost. All over the continent historic buildings in city centres are prized yet our Council removed 36 The Mall and the complete north side of Lombard Street from the list of preserved structures to facilitate development by the Tower Hotel.

At the second planning application, An Bord Pleanála refused the demolition and now our Council, in discussions with Neville Hotels, say that any planning application which includes the demolition of said buildings is unacceptable.

The architect, developer and Council could and should have foreseen this at the very start. Of course, some of the buildings are in a poor state; that’s what happens when buildings are left to rot as they have been on Lombard Street. So too the beautiful Royal Bar which is being left to rot.

Lombard Street is now conspicuously run down. Wholesale demolition is not the answer. The area bounded by The Mall, Lombard Street, St John’s River and Adelphi Quay was once replete with Georgian houses. The lovely Adelphi Hotel and Steamship buildings, the old County Club, which served as a Garda Station, the magnificent Adelphi Terrace. All are gone, demolished to make way for prosaic and indifferent architecture.

No 36, The Mall.

To demolish 36 The Mall and the north side of Lombard Street would be to completely erase what was once a complete Georgian quarter. Maybe that’s what we want, to replace the old with something ‘new’?

Are we all Philistines, aesthetically blind to anything except cement render and PVC windows? Or are we just visual illiterates in a society where the very notion of art and beauty are ideas sniggered at in the muscular world of pouring tons of concrete on the North Quays?

Of course, there has to be development in Waterford and we can get it right. Our council’s architect’s department produced the award-winning Medieval Museum which featured in architectural journals all over Europe.

A resolve by the developer and their architects to preserve 36 The Mall and some section of Lombard Street would have borne fruit at the very start.

Demolition of one side of a historic street should have rung alarm bells long before any application was submitted. Waterford’s understandable desperation for hotel development in the city centre drove this debacle. If any of our ‘developers’ had built a decent sized hotel and conference centre in the city, this debacle could have been avoided.

Will we learn from it? But is aesthetic, presentation, beauty and architecture of the highest quality and good design at the top of our Council’s agenda?

Almost by accident, Waterford’s Museum of Treasures has completed two new museums this year. The Museum of Time in the old Methodist Church in Greyfriars where the stonework and fabric of the building has been lovingly restored (from private donations) by local stonemason, Brian Whelan, is a tour de force.

In Cathedral Square, the old Deanery building, once neglected almost to dereliction and perhaps the most important building in Waterford is now the magnificent Museum of Irish Silver, again largely from private donations. The building is beautifully presented with signage and flower boxes of the highest standard.

Three members of the Council have told me that some in Council management utterly opposed these developments. Quite what they would put in their place is a mystery.

I fear the majority of our elected Council are supine, even as the status of the city is visibly eroded and its historic fabric ignored.

Has Phil Hogan won his battle to downgrade our city with our elected members complicit? Where are the challenges from the elected members about our quays and city streets? Many of them do not even have visible road markings any longer.

With URDF money totalling €115m, we singularly failed to execute plans for the North Quays and now we hear of some future never, never plan for next year! Or is that the year after? Who is challenging the Council system on this? Most of our Councillors are so focused on footpaths and potholes that they’re not fully aware of the city we live in. We already have an existential crisis in our hospital but that crisis extends palpably to the status of the city.  Soren Kierkegaard, the great 19th Century Danish philosopher said: “Life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards.”

Waterford can look back at political and administrative failures which have passed with a shrug. Even as our hospital and third level education are under threat and lag behind those of our one-time peer cities, our elected Council is largely speechless.

Should the fabric of the old city be dispatched without a murmur? How many buildings of the 18th Century has Waterford anyway? Are we so careless of our built heritage that one side of a whole street should be demolished because the buildings are in poor condition and that we don’t have Council direction, client ambition or the architectural desire to come up with a scheme to save them?

Last week, I went down to see the wonderful mural being painted in Jenkins  Lane at the rear of the old Savoy Cinema as part of the Waterford Walls Festival.

On its own, Jenkins Lane is emblematic of the problems facing our city. A network of ancient streets demolished in 1980 with no plan to redevelop. It’s barren, bare, lifelessness is a 40-year-old reminder of thoughtless Council action initiated without any plan. Surely No 36 The Mall and the aforementioned Lombard Street buildings deserve a different fate.

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