No clear route forward for Kilkenny city centre
Debate over Central Access Scheme still rages as city and county merge
Kilkenny is at a crossroads. As the ancient city is about to be absorbed by the county under Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan’s local government reforms, there is no consensus about how to proceed – particularly on the highly-contentious Central Access Scheme (CAS).
On one side of the argument are Kilkenny County Council, the soon-to-be-abolished town council (with the exception of Malcolm Noonan, its sole Green Party member), county manager Joe Crockett, consultant engineers Malone O’Regan, Scott Wilson and much of the business community.
On the other side are the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, An Taisce, and Complete the Kilkenny Ring Road Campaign. They’re concerned about the CAS’s impact on medieval heritage, its effect in drawing more traffic into the town. They want the unfinished ring road completed as a priority.
The council maintains that the CAS – long-planned as an “inner relief route” – is necessary if there is to be any chance of reducing traffic in the medieval core, with John Street, Rose Inn Street and High Street substantially given over to pedestrians to end the domination of cars in this area.
In 2010, the council sought to implement a one-way system, but it only lasted for a week after Kilkenny became “gridlocked”. Critics such as Cllr Noonan say this was due to poor planning and a failure to “flag” the scheme in advance. There was also opposition from traders, who see traffic as a sign of life.
Kilkenny has no buses or park-and-ride sites, so it was almost bound to fail. “We were too ambitious,” the county manager said. But he pledged that traffic calming and substantial pedestrianisation would be implemented in tandem with the CAS – a 4.5km stretch of road with a new bridge over the river Nore.
Crockett says he asked the consultant engineers to redesign the project, taking out roundabouts and narrowing it to a single carriageway, 7.3m (24 ft) wide.
This would allow traffic to be “redistributed onto the new bridge and associated streets” and was approved by An Bord Pleanála in 2011.
“It’s critical for Kilkenny that we have a pedestrian-friendly city centre. That’s what has driven thinking in terms of having wider footpaths, cycleways, etc,” he says. “We have to go one-way and, for that to happen, we need the new access route. It’s a plan-led project that will deliver a perfectly balanced city centre.”
But there are houses in the way of the €10.5 million scheme, including one on Vicar Street which Cóilín Ó Drisceoil, director of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, insists has a late medieval gable, or at least the remnants of one – a claim dismissed by the council’s consultant archaeologists, Valerie J Keeley Ltd.
Following the discovery of what Crockett describes as a pre-1700 stone window frame, they are carrying out a further dig in the immediate vicinity. So the terrace of three houses on Vicar Street – intended to be demolished last summer to facilitate the CAS – are still standing for the moment.
Also lying in its path, Ó Drisceoil says, is a section of the ditch that enclosed the early medieval St Canice’s monastery as well as deposits containing “an abundance of fantastically preserved timber waterfront structures” between the river and Vicar Street, parts of a medieval mill complex and a famine graveyard.
The National Monuments Service initially opposed the CAS on the basis that it would “cut through the precinct of St Canice’s”.
However, following discussions with Kilkenny county and borough councils – in which chief archaeologist Brian Duffy was involved – and some changes to the scheme, the objection was withdrawn.
As Vicar Street is part of the St Canice’s Cathedral precinct, critics maintain that it would further remove the cathedral -- one of Kilkenny’s premier attractions – from the rest of its medieval core. Its setting was already compromised by the widening of Dean Street in the 1980s, of which the latest scheme is effectively an extension.
Those campaigning to complete the ring road (it’s the northern part that’s missing) fear that the CAS will inevitably draw more traffic – including heavy goods vehicles – into residential areas to the west, and people living there would have to put up with this until 2024, the earliest year by which the ring road might be finished.
At least 600 people – and possibly as many as 1,000 – took part in a protest march through Kilkenny last September. More than 7,000 have also put their names to a petition calling for the ring road to be completed before any consideration is given to the CAS, according to campaign spokeswoman Sheila Tuohy.
“Living in the city would become more unpleasant. As traffic speeds increase, so does noise. The ordinary becomes harder – everyday things like crossing the road,” says An Taisce’s policy director, James Nix.
“This was a mistake made in countless towns and cities across Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, but is now being reversed.”
Owen Browne, a Kilkenny resident, likens the city to Oxford, where he spent some time.
Although the scale is obviously different, both cities have much in common – medieval roots, an inland location along a major river, a strong reputation for heritage and the arts – and a ring road. “The difference is that Oxford’s ring road is finished.”
Similar proposals for “inner relief routes” in Oxford had been rejected after a vigorous public campaign and, in 1972, the council “adopted a balanced transport policy which instead put the emphasis on moving people rather than cars. The city introduced park-and- ride, with car parks at the city’s edge, and encouraged public transport”.
Browne maintains that Kilkenny could do the same. “Athlone and Balbriggan each have a population roughly two-thirds that of Kilkenny, yet they both manage to run 40 buses a day on their town routes. Across the Border in Newry – a town scarcely bigger than Kilkenny – there are no less than six urban bus routes,” he says.
There is also concern that the CAS could open up the former cattle mart on the east bank of the Nore for commercial development. The 5.66-hectare (14-acre) site, currently for sale with a guide price of €5 million, is in the process of being zoned for a “neighbourhood centre” – even though it would be ideal for inner city residential.
In 2009, plans by City Mart Properties for a shopping centre were rejected by An Bord Pleanála because of concerns that it would undermine the vitality and viability of the retail core around High Street.
Another shopping centre, McDonagh Junction, has since been built beside the railway station – a relatively short walk away.
As for the CAS, the authorities are determined to press ahead.
Malcolm Noonan says that if he’s wrong and the road actually delivers the benefits being claimed for it – rather than just drawing more traffic into town – he’d be “the first to admit it”. However, he doesn’t anticipate having to eat humble pie.