‘New heart for old city’: Galway’s massive regeneration scheme

‘Ceannt Quarter’ development to include hotel, residential, community and retail

When Jacques-Louis de Bougrenet de la Tocnaye strolled into Galway in the late 1790s with his swordstick slung over his shoulder, the Frenchman was struck by the disconnect between the town, its lake and the sea.

Over two centuries later, creating a seamless link between Galway city centre and the Atlantic in its back garden is a theme of developer Gerry Barrett's plans for "Ceannt Quarter", the CIÉ-owned 8.2-acre site around Ceannt railway and bus station. Barrett's team is now inviting public submissions on redevelopment of the highly valued city centre location, which it secured the tender for several months ago.

Project Ceannt is described as one of the largest urban regeneration schemes in the history of the State, with scope to build several hundred houses/apartments, along with retail, food outlets, a hotel and an arts space next to the rail/bus station and overlooking Eyre Square.

“A new heart for an old city” was how advertisements described the opportunity to contribute to the first phase of consultation on a masterplan before a planning application is made.


Preferred bidder

Barrett had previously been named preferred bidder to redevelop what was then a larger CIÉ site at Ceannt station of 15 acres, but plans were abandoned in 2012 due to the recession.

By then, Barrett’s fortunes were also changing. He and his associated companies once had a comprehensive portfolio of retail and hotel properties, including the G Hotel and Meyrick Hotel (now Galmont) in Galway, the D in Drogheda, Co Louth, and Ashford Castle in Co Mayo.

The Galway businessman broke away from the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) when €778 million in loans held by his company, Edward Holdings, were sold off at a considerable discount. He continues to run Scotch Hall Shopping Centre in Drogheda.

Barrett recently secured planning approval for a city centre development overlooking Galway docks and adjoining Ceannt station, named Bonham Quay and on a site purchased for €9 million before the property crash. "Bonham Quay has 43 per cent open space incorporated into its design, and this new project at Ceannt station will have around 40 per cent open space, including in upper levels," he told The Irish Times on a recent tour of the area.

Bonham Quay is located on lands formerly used for fuel storage tanks that accommodated two Volvo Ocean yachting race festivals in Galway.The area has required a decontamination plan, and construction is expected to start next February, with target completion in August 2020.

More than 26,000sq m of office space are provided for in the proposed €130 million Bonham Quay development by Barrett's company, Edward Capital. Its four blocks, ranging in size from 4,820 to 11,845sq m, could accommodate up to 2,600 employees, according to Edward Capital, and it says construction could generate more than 500 jobs.

“Ceannt Quarter”, which Barrett stresses is a working title, is zoned for mixed use, and Galway City Council opted not to conduct a local area plan for the area – a move criticised by An Taisce’s Galway branch.

Similarly, no local area plan was drawn up for Bonham Quay, but Barrett’s team says this was a decision taken by Galway City Council during preparation of its development plan. However, that plan did state that the developers should draw up a masterplan with a “significant level” of engagement with the local authority, the public and adjoining landowners.

The public consultation exercise is a genuine attempt to engage, his team says. People have also been interviewed in all parts of Galway, and in Athlone, Tuam and Athenry, his team says, given that Galway’s bus and train station record an annual footfall of some 2.3 million.

Galway, which has several third-level institutions requiring more student accommodation, is also benefiting from a substantial growth in tourism, with statistics for the past two years expected to exceed the 1.344 million people who visited the city during 2016.

It is anticipated that the Ceannt Quarter development will include a hotel, along with a residential, community and retail element. CIÉ's one requirement is that 130 carparking spaces should be provided. A minimum of 30 per cent of the overall space must be residential, according to the planning conditions, and a cultural/arts facility must also be provided.

Transport facilities

Upgrading of bus and rail facilities, along with underground parking, must be “frontloaded”, according to Galway city’s 2017-2023 development plan. CIÉ says a key stipulation for the site is that it will retain “full use of the lands for a minimum period of two years from now”, and it will relocate the railway sidings currently extending into the site area. CIÉ will also relocate the drivers’ accommodation during this period.

“From a public transport perspective, we have reserved sufficient lands at the station to provide for future public transport requirements as the need arises and funding is available,”CIÉ says.

CIÉ will continue to own the site under a development agreement, subject to an annual site licence fee and higher rent or income sharing agreement. The approach is similar to CIÉ’s redevelopment of Connolly Station, Boston Sidings and Tara Street station in Dublin, it says.

The Ceannt station site is on split levels, overlooking Galway Bay, Lough Atalia and Renmore barracks to the east. It currently accommodates the Portershed technology hub.

Listed buildings

It has several listed buildings, including a former train and goods shed where Guinness barrels would have been stored for delivery to the city and Connemara, along with a set of stables. An old Bedford fire truck (“Mucadh Toiteáin”) currently sits inside the goods shed, and the building has potential as a food hall, Barrett’s team says.

The area also has several protected structures adjoining it, including Forthill cemetery, dating back to about 1500, and a four-bay chapel to the south of its entrance, including a plaque commemorating burial of crew from the Spanish Armada shipwrecks of 1588.

Ceannt Quarter has significant associations with Galway’s history over the past 170 years. A cholera hospital had just closed and the immediate impact of the Famine was just receding in June 1849 when it was announced that the railway was to be extended from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, to the west coast port.

What was then the new Queen’s College – the new university – also enrolled its first cohort of 68 students in October of that same year.

Galway's then mover and shaker, Fr Peter Daly, is credited with securing the rail extension, which was greeted with the ringing of Joy bells and illumination of what was then a town, according to NUI Galway historian John Cunningham.

The rail line took just two years to build, with the first train arriving on July 21st, 1851, Cunningham writes in his history, A Town Tormented by the Sea: Galway, 1790-1914. The train link with the east heralded the end of "Galway time", and local clocks were put forward by 11½ minutes to bring them in line with Dublin.

Former plans

A previous redevelopment masterplan for the area more than a decade ago included a new bus and rail station, an “urban park”, a 150-room four-star hotel and a 16-storey apartment building, with some 56,000sq m of retail space, cafes, bars and restaurants.

This time the area is slightly smaller, but Barrett’s team believes there is considerable scope for more retail space, while a new hotel could rival the adjoining Galmont, formerly owned by the developer.

With Galway's European City of Culture 2020 festival on the horizon, and a 10-year cultural strategy already drawn up by the city council, there has been much recent focus on the city's shortage of performance space.

However, Barrett’s team points out that a decent performance building would cost at least €15 million, requiring an area of at least a 65m x 45m wide footprint. They say it is more likely that a community space would be built, doubling up for both sport and for use as dance studio, drama or film school.

Barrett's representatives attended a recent meeting of the new Galway Environmental Network as part of September's inaugural Loving Galway festival. An Taisce Galway branch chairman Derrick Hambleton, who was also present, welcomes public engagement, but is concerned about the wider issue of "developer-led" planning in Galway.

Full debate

Prof Ulf Strohmayer, a geographer at NUIG, also says a local area plan should have been a priority for Galway City Council, allowing for a full debate on the future of the inner city and development at a "human scale" that gives scope for affordable living, innovation and a high-quality cultural space.

He notes that Edward Holding’s track record on the relationship between public and private spaces is “not encouraging”, as access for a coastal walk past the Barna House development was denied. However, a spokesman for Barrett said public access would be “central” to the Ceannt Quarter development.

Strohmayer quotes from the Bord Pleanála inspector’s report on proposed construction of student housing on Queen Street. The inspector noted a “sense of disenfranchisement evident” in third-party submissions based on lack of public participation in evolution of Galway’s inner harbour area.

The geographer said there should be genuine consultation on planning for a new urban quarter rather than relying on developer-led concepts that “frame” the shape of a “colour-coded city”. In spite of “assurances to the contrary”, there is currently “limited engagement without statutory basis or principles-based decision-making”, he says.

Barrett has been given seven years by CIÉ to develop the area, and so it is expected to be completed by 2025. His team intends to respond to the submissions with another public consultation exercise in December.