Shannonside sells itself as Europe's new Riverside City

 

The hottest political issue in Limerick revolves around a propsal to extend the city boudary, writes Frank McDonald.

Bloody feuding between rival gangs has done no good for Limerick's reputation in recent years, earning it a notorious nickname and overshadowing a quite remarkable transformation of its physical fabric, at least in the city centre.

Little-known facts about the Limerick area include the statistic that it is the wealthiest part of Ireland outside the Greater Dublin Area. However, many of its better-off residents live not in the city but in Co Limerick and Co Clare, a phenomenon that is replicated in Cork by those who prefer to be "county people".

Limerick's city boundary, last changed in 1950, no longer reflects the extent of its suburbs. Castletroy and Dooradoyle lie just outside it in Co Limerick while Caherdavin and Parteen are in Co Clare. Even part of Limerick City Council's Moyross housing estate is located in the Banner County.

Against the objections of Limerick County Council, the draft city plan - due to be adopted by November 26th - describes the boundary as "artificially tight" and says the city council will pursue a major extension in order to develop a coherent strategy for the whole city, which it calls "Greater Limerick".

It wants to absorb 11,590 acres of Co Limerick and 3,890 acres of Co Clare, as proposed in a 1996 council resolution, arguing that the "partitioning" of the city and its immediate environs is "inimical to the . . . well-being" of Limerick and its strategic role as the urban hub of the mid-west region.

"Social imbalance resulting from rural depopulation is universally recognised", the draft city plan says. "Less obvious is the imbalance caused by loss of population to the periphery, such as has been experienced in Limerick and manifested by urban obsolescence and social deprivation."

In 1950 Limerick had a population of 50,828, while the number of people living in its environs was only 4,294. By 2002 this had risen to 39,263, while the number in the city went up marginally to 54,058. It is estimated that by 2017 Limerick's population will be outstripped by its suburbs.

At a city council meeting last month, senior planner Dick Tobin pointed out that the town boundary of Ballina, Co Mayo, which was extended in 2002, now encompasses an area three-quarters the size of Limerick, although it has a population of only 9,500 - less than a fifth of the mid-west's capital.

"The problem for the city is that a whole range of allocations, from money for childcare to grants for architectural conservation, is based on population so Limerick loses out," Tobin says. "In addition, the present boundary effectively disenfranchises nearly 40,000 people in the extended area."

It also magnifies the scale of social deprivation in the city, making it appear even worse. Limerick is at the bottom of the league, well behind the other cities. Its local-authority tenants have lower incomes than those living anywhere else - just three-quarters of the national average for such tenants.

Moyross is among the poorest of Limerick's housing estates. Located north-west of the city centre, it has 800 to 1,000 houses in several so-called neighbourhoods, served by a single access road. Numerous houses are steel-shuttered because people could no longer put up with anti-social behaviour.

Though developed in the 1980s, Moyross has no real sense of place. Roads are bleak, open space useless except for grazing horses or having bonfires, and a neighbourhood shopping centre is only now being built. Commuter trains between Ennis and Limerick are regularly attacked by stone-throwing youths.

In 2001 the Government declared Moyross and the nearby council estates of Ballynanty, Kileely and part of Thomondgate as a RAPID initiative area, and a plan was prepared to counter their effective economic exclusion by, for example, infilling some of the vacant land with new mixed-tenure housing.

Not far away, near Thomond Park, Limerick Institute of Technology is another world. Its newer red-brick buildings, designed by Murray O'Laoire Architects, include the 350-seat Millennium Theatre, which is good for small productions. The students' car-park to the rear is almost always overflowing.

Out at the University of Limerick in Plassey, the concert hall seats more than 1,000, making it by far the biggest indoor venue in the area. Developed along Belfield lines since it was set up as an National Institute of Higher Education in 1973, UL is forever adding more buildings to its campus, which has now leaped into Co Clare.

A quite stunning new bridge in two parallel parts - one for cars and the other for cyclists and pedestrians - crosses the Shannon to link the original site to its new territory, where the fourth "student village" is currently being completed. Also under construction is a new building for health sciences.

Plans are well advanced for an Irish World Music Centre, the brainchild of Micheál Ó Súilleabháin, professor of music at UL. Designed by French-born architect Daniel Cordier, following an international competition, this rather eccentric €14 million building is expected to be completed by summer 2007.

But it is in the centre of Limerick that new buildings have made the most impact. A 20-year-old vision by Jim Barrett, the former city architect, to turn the city around to face the Shannon is well on its way to being realised, with an array of architecture of appropriate scale appearing along the river.

Since then numerous civic, commercial and residential projects have sprung up along the city's quays, with nearly €1 billion invested in hotels, offices, restaurants, shops and apartments, stretching from Arthur's Quay to Steamboat Quay - as well as the Hunt Museum, installed in the former Custom House.

The Clarion Hotel has become something of an icon for the "new Limerick" and is trading so successfully that apartments at the upper levels are to be remodelled to provide extra rooms. It will be matched by a 14-storey office block, on the site of gable-fronted Munchin House overlooking Shannon Bridge.

Across the river where the scale is much more domestic, the low-slung Jury's Hotel on Callaghan's Strand is to be replaced by a seven-storey building flanked by three apartment blocks that will overlook Sarsfield Bridge and establish a new scale for urban development on the north bank of the Shannon.

On the city side, one block back from the river, the Savoy Centre - a multiplex cinema and bowling alley with apartments overhead, all built in the late 1980s - is due to be demolished for another hotel and apartments over two levels of shopping, which will add to the impressive remaking of Henry Street.

Its linchpin is the new Dunnes Stores, designed by Newenham Mulligan and Associates in a similar style as their award-winning Roches Stores in Dublin.

It cleverly masks a multi-storey car-park and also includes a block of apartments on Harvey's Quay, one of several developed along the river in recent years. Opposite Dunnes, Limerick architect Séamus Carr has won plaudits for his sensitive conversion of one of the city's old warehouse buildings, for young developer Aidan Brooks. The same team are currently completing an impressive office and apartment scheme at the corner of Shannon Street.

Baker Place, around the Tait Clock, has been beautifully repaved in French sandstone, buff-coloured concrete flags and limestone kerbs with stainless steel bollards. Designed by London-based architect Nick de Jong, it is a pilot project for the main shopping streets, at an overall cost of €15 million.

But what of Newtown Pery, the most extensive Georgian district outside Dublin? Though designated as an architectural conservation area in the draft city plan, no actions are promised to reverse the proliferation of "swing-out" PVC windows and ugly signage, on and off O'Connell Street.

Limerick County Council has vacated a terrace of Georgian houses near The Crescent by moving out to its spanking new County Hall in Dooradoyle, while the Society of St Vincent de Paul operates from a prominent house on Hartstonge Street which has been defaced by PVC - and nothing is done about it.

Little help is available to protect the Georgian core - only €50,000 this year, a fraction of what is needed, according to Denis Leonard, director of Limerick Civic Trust; its most ambitious project, the restoration of No 2 Pery Square, has cost €1.5 million and, though now open to the public, is not a paying proposition. Founded in 1983, the trust's mission is to preserve Limerick's historic buildings and spaces and to acquire and restore "endangered urban resources for public enjoyment". Its 100-plus projects included restoring the 17th-century Bishop's Palace, once earmarked for demolition, as its own headquarters.

It is currently preparing a "housekeeping" report for the city council, which will no doubt stress the need for better maintenance of public areas, such as Arthur's Quay park, which now looks unkempt just 10 years on; even the tourist office has cobwebs festooning the globe lights under its canopy.

King John's Castle once had 20 local-authority houses in its courtyard, but they were cleared away more than a decade ago and the residents rehoused nearby. Murray O'Laoire's visitor centre may have few fans in Limerick, but at least it's still open - unlike Castle Lane, which turned into a commercial disaster.

Promoted by Shannon Development, this pastiche of Old Limerick attracted the "wrong crowd", but it was also based on the same tired business plan as banqueting in the brick vaults of The Granary, which also failed; this vast space is now the Trinity Rooms, a trendy nightclub with shades of Barcelona.

But the city would be worse off without Shannon Development, which is still the only regional development agency in the State. It is now marketing Limerick as "Europe's new Riverside City", with an ambitious plan to transform the entire waterfront from the old docks area all the way upriver to UL.

Limerick architect Hugh Murray says there is a need for a shared vision of the city's future and focused civic leadership to bring it about. "There must be ambition first, then you can build up the pride. But if people identify with the city and are more positive about it, that would have a resonant effect," he believes.

Whether the various authorities in Limerick, all of which subscribed to the Riverside City vision, will actually work together to achieve it is an open question. Certainly, if the proposed boundary change is contingent on agreement being reached between the three councils, then it won't happen.