Limerick regeneration plan aims to reverse decades of decline

‘Limerick 2030’ claims to have potential to deliver 12,000 new jobs

To say that Limerick’s Georgian heritage has been abused and neglected would be an understatement. But Frank McDonald makes the case for the preservation of a nationally important architectural asset. Video: Niamh Guckian


After a very shaky start, Limerick should be en fête for much of this year as Ireland’s first National City of Culture. Bedevilled by organisational chaos, it’s being done on a shoestring, with €6 million in Government funding, but is still expected to generate €100 million for the local economy.

Limerick is aiming, so its latest plan says, to become “a major economic force in the Irish and European economy”. Whatever about the Irish context, it would require a significant leap of faith to imagine that the midwest’s capital (population: 91,500) will soon be taking on the likes of Lubeck or Livorno.

But there are some who believe Limerick 2030: an Economic and Spatial Plan for Limerick may be the most comprehensive since Edmund Sexton Pery began laying out his Georgian “new town” in the 1760s, and that its vision of turning Limerick into “Ireland’s most business-friendly city” might even be achievable.

The plan, drawn up by a consortium of consultants led by GVA Grimley for €190,000, “has the potential to deliver 12,000 new jobs and sets out a number of objectives which will considerably change the infrastructure of the city centre and deliver a whole new vision for Limerick as a leading centre for commercial investment”.

As its authors concede, Limerick has been in decline as a commercial centre over the last 10 to 20 years. “This decline is most evident in the city centre, which has been undermined by competition from out-of-centre development – both shopping and business development and by an imbalance in business rates between city and county.”

Across Ireland, as Limerick 2030 says bluntly, “the midwest has been the worst-performing region in terms of change in the number of IDA-supported jobs between 2006 and 2010. For the midwest, the number of jobs has declined by 38.5 per cent compared to a decline of 9.5 per cent for Ireland as a whole.”

Limerick was hit harder than most because most of its foreign direct investment was in IT manufacturing, notably by Dell, rather than in more resilient computer software, research and development. Unfortunately, it banked on an industry that has “constantly shifted to lower-cost locations”.

What the latest plan sets out to do is to “capture elements of economic sectors which are clustering elsewhere” – just as social media firms Google, Facebook and others have congregated in Dublin. But potential investors would need to be “overwhelmed by the quality of service and support that the city provides”.

‘No silver bullet’
The plan rightly focuses on improving the city centre as Limerick’s “shop window” and developing its role as “a place of creativity, culture and consumption”.

It concedes that there is “no ‘silver bullet’, no single initiative that will transform the city centre” and that success will require “clarity of vision” and implementation.

Such “clarity of vision” was absent in the past when Limerick County Council was granting permission for shopping centres on the outskirts of the city. Though the county and city are now being merged, this legacy will make it difficult to achieve a key objective: “to reposition the city centre as the premier regional shopping destination”.

One of the plan’s most controversial proposals would involve redeveloping Arthur’s Quay shopping mall and extending it to incorporate part of the public park along the quayside – an award-winning scheme from Limerick’s earlier phase of urban renewal that has since become a focus for antisocial activities.

The loss of public space would be offset by demolishing Sarsfield House, a hideous office block from the 1970s occupied by the Revenue that also obscures views of King’s Island. But this park extension proposal is critically dependent on new office space being provided for the Revenue on the fallow “Opera site” nearby.

Also proposed is an “iconic destination building on the waterfront”, tentatively named Limerick Cultural Centre, on a site currently occupied by the former Dunnes Stores outlet beside Sarsfield Bridge. This could incorporate new performance, exhibition and conference facilities, but there is no indication how it would be funded.

The centre is promised in the context of developing a “world-class waterfront” along the river Shannon – in line with the Limerick Riverside City brand adopted in 2009; a “renaissance” of the quays is already under way, with high-quality paving being laid, to make Limerick more attractive for locals and tourists alike.

It could certainly do with more tourists. The Hunt Museum, installed in the former Custom House in 1997, attracts only about 45,000 visitors a year. And while Limerick benefits from a good range of hotels – largely levered by tax incentives – room occupancy levels, at 53 per cent, are the lowest for any city in Ireland.

‘Put pedestrians first’
On transport, Limerick 2030 seeks to “remove as much extraneous traffic from the city centre as possible” and “put pedestrians first”, with wider footpaths and more generous crossing points, as part of a drive to create a “high-quality and safe urban environment” for residents, visitors, business and potential investors.

As the plan says, “it is essential that a co-ordinated effort is made to market and rebrand Limerick”. The city has suffered enormously in the past from violent crime and gang warfare in sink estates such as Moyross and Southill. But most of the criminals are now behind bars and the areas they used to infest are slowly being regenerated.

One of the plan’s principal aims is to “make the city centre once again a desirable place to live by improving the quality of the housing on offer”. It estimates that there is potential for a minimum of 800 to 1,000 new homes in the area, mainly by converting Georgian houses in Newtown Pery – long since taken over for offices – back to residential.

This could be done by encouraging owner occupation under the Government’s tax incentive scheme for Georgian properties in Limerick, Waterford and Dublin or by working with the city’s third-level institutions to develop residential accommodation in the city centre for students, postgraduates and academic staff.

Pilot scheme
“A pilot scheme is required to demonstrate the potential and prove the market,” according to the plan drawn up by GVA Grimley in collaboration with Aecom and Thinking Place, for the soon-to-be-united city and county councils. Altogether, some €250 million – mainly private sector investment – would be needed to deliver it.

“The wider invigoration of the city centre can be expected to lead to organic and private sector-led development activity which could substantially increase housing outputs,” it says, adding that “renovation and appropriate conservation activity” would extend across the Georgian quarter and eventually into Irish Town.

The plan was adopted last November by both the city and county councils after 31 submissions were received from the public. It will now have to be incorporated into the Limerick City Development Plan by way of a variation, which will require a further public consultation process prior to any final decisions on the rezoning of land.

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