Cork streets redesigned for diners, not drivers

‘You could be sitting out on a bright summer’s evening until 11pm. Can you think of anything more enjoyable?’

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Clare Nash, who runs Nash 19 restaurant in Princes Street in Cork, believes outdoor drinking and eating are here to stay after Covid-19, despite the vagaries of the Irish weather.

Such was the success of outdoor dining last year during Cork city’s Eat on the Street campaign that last month Nash sought to recruit waiting staff, chefs, a barista and a sommelier, believing this summer could be as good, or better.

This year, though, there will be many more places to sit outside and eat, following Cork City Council’s decision to pedestrianise 17 city centre streets, after a trial run last summer brought healthy trade even in a time of Covid.

Once implemented, the alterations will bring about the most significant change into the city’s streetscape since the early dawn of motor vehicles. And it has prompted demands for change in other cities, too.

The decision by the city council to begin the resurfacing works on Monday (April 12th) is proof that outdoor dining and a continental-style “living on the streets” is here to stay in Leeside, says Nash.

“I am passionate about Cork not becoming one of those mothball-style cities that is without life or energy. With Covid, our back was to the wall and we just came out fighting. Some days we made more money outdoors than we did traditionally indoors,” she says.

The Marina will be closed permanently to traffic, 24/7; as will St Peter and Paul’s Place and part of Paul Street, Emmett Place, Little Ann Street and Little Cross Street, under the plans created after a long-running public consultation.

Meanwhile, others will be opened to traffic for deliveries from 2am to 11am every day, with deliveries restricted to core times using time-controlled bollards which will go up and down to regulate traffic.

These are Tuckey Street; Oliver Plunkett Street; Grafton Street; Marlboro Street, South; Cook Street, South; and Robert Street. Morgan Street will be similarly closed.

So, too, will Caroline Street and Smith Street from its junction with Phoenix Street to its junction with Oliver Plunkett Street. Pembroke Street, meanwhile, will be closed to traffic from 9.30am to 2am, seven days a week.

Phoenix Street, from its junction with Pembroke Street to its junction with Crane Lane, will also be closed to traffic but open to pedestrians from 9.30am to 2am each day, as will Beasley Street, and Princes Street, South.

Public order offences

However, the public realm in Ireland is rarely protected in the way that it should, with outdoor congregations usually leading to a mass increase in littering, drunkenness and public order offences.

Cork, however, saw little, if any, of that during the trial, helped by the fact that most people were sitting at tables, rather than drinking outdoors; the fact that most who came out were older helped too.

For now, Cork gardaí are not anticipating trouble, with the city’s Anglesea Street Garda HQ saying problems will be addressed if and when they arise. In the meantime, they will continue to liaise with everyone involved.

However, there are doubters. The long-standing inability of the gardaí and the city council to govern traffic curbs on Patrick Street infuriate many; while the failure to clear cars parked on cycling lanes has done little to improve the tempers of others.

“They are good at getting publicity for plans, in fairness,” says local solicitor and cycling campaigner Joe Noonan, as he posted the latest of many images of cars illegally parked, or illegally driving through Patrick Street when they should not have been there.

So far, though, the changes are being broadly welcomed. Margaret O’Sullivan from Montenotte in Cork city says she is delighted to see Cork follow the template of European cities in embracing outdoor dining.

“Retail has died and we need to bring people back into the city centre and have a look to cities like Barcelona and Lisbon. It is a great idea. Make a foodie city. Bring people in to live in the city.

“Outdoor dining worked last summer. Research has shown that transmission of Covid outdoors is very low. People will be very happy this summer to have this as a means of socialising. The only thing we can’t order is the weather,” she says.

‘Hellish year’

Equally happy, James Donnelly of Counihan’s Bar in Pembroke Street says the changes come after a “hellish” year.

“We have been open for one month in 12. Two weeks outdoor and two weeks indoor. When we were indoor we had a capacity of 400 but we had 50 people maximum. This will be good for the city and bring people into the city.”

David Joyce, director of operations (roads and environment) at Cork City Council, says Cork city centre is the perfect setting for outdoor dining. Pedestrian and outdoor dining were being considered before Covid, but the pandemic spurred change.

“We had the opportunity to accelerate some of those plans. It is about reimagining the city centre in terms of how we can make it a thriving place to shop in, live in and recreate in.

“Some of what we have implemented benefits the food trade in the city but, equally, more people coming in will benefit non-food related businesses.”

Limited public outdoor dining on Carey’s Lane and French Church Street has happened for 15 years, without trouble, so he anticipates that an expansion into other streets will not bring difficulties, either.

Businesses are working to weather-proof their outdoor spaces with removable canopies and heaters.

“But you could also have a bright summer’s evening sitting out until 11pm. Can you think of anything more enjoyable?

“There is a vibrancy to outdoor dining. Walking down the street listening to that atmosphere of people enjoying themselves.

“It is an inviting sound. Last year was a super success and we think 2021 will be even better. It will also make the city a more vibrant and atmospheric place for somebody to live in,” he says.

Eoin O’Sullivan, president of Cork Business Association, says people are eager to get back out to socialise safely: “The whole country was looking at Cork as we bucked the trend [with outdoor dining] last summer. We really grabbed this with both hands,” he says.