The high-rise and the downturn

 

Launched in 2008 as a ‘beacon of light’ for a ‘new dawn’, Cork’s Elysian Tower is one of Ireland’s tallest buildings, but is largely empty. What’s it like to live in a structure that could serve as a tombstone for the Celtic Tiger?

‘THIS WILL CHANGE everything,” proclaimed the advertising wrapped around one of Ireland’s tallest buildings during its construction in the boom years. The brochures selling apartment and retail space on the three-acre site were similarly confident, heralding a “new dawn” in Irish architecture and describing the development as like “a beacon of light overlooking a city striding with confidence into the 21st century”.

That city is Cork, and the development, the Elysian, situated in the docklands, now lies largely empty and has done so since its launch in September 2008. Peering down over the nearby City Hall, the Elysian Tower is a permanent reminder not of confidence and hope, but of mistiming and over-ambition. It could serve as a tombstone for the Celtic Tiger.

The towering building was a welcome addition to Cork. During the planning process there was only one objection. The then minister for foreign affairs Micheál Martin helped launch the development on September 17th, 2008, along with minister Batt O’Keeffe, and the Munster and Ireland rugby star Ronan O’Gara, who was MC for the evening. The developer, Michael O’Flynn, said it ranked “alongside the very finest developments of its type even in London or anywhere else in the world”. Joe Gavin, former Cork city manager, called it “attractive, sleek and slender . . . a landmark building as you come in from the airport”.

The one-bed apartments went on sale for €375,000; penthouses were going for between €1.4 million and €2 million. Potential customers had not been allowed buy from the plans or in advance, and the developers were adamant prices would not be reduced.

Yet six months after the launch, the developer admitted it had sold just 25 units out of a total of 211. By the start of 2009, only one person had taken up residence in the tower, and the building had become the target of derision in Cork.

With the advertising bunting long since taken down, locals, in reference to a nearby bar called the Idle Hour, began to rename the Elysian the “Idle Tower”. Rumours and urban myths began to circulate, including allegations that it could not be fully finished and furnished for financial reasons, that the glass frontage leaked, and that the only people who had bought units in the development were relatives of O’Flynn – all of which O’Flynn says are untrue.

Although many people in Cork may have an opinion on the development, very few have been inside it. Those who live in the building tend to be guarded: some residents tell me they have been asked not to speak to the media; others decline my request for an interview or to be shown on site, having grown weary of the questioning that goes hand in hand with living in the Elysian.

The entrance to the apartments is controlled through a security system and a concierge service, and the employee on duty says he had been instructed not to speak to the media or provide details of anyone living on site.

On a recent Saturday visit, only 13 cars occupy one floor of a car park with a multiple of that many spaces. Three retail units are occupied on the ground floor, including a medical unit and ACC Bank. Towards the east side of the development, in a ground-floor retail unit, students from Crawford College of Art Design have been given a space for their end-of-year show. Eighty-five per cent of the retail and residential units lie empty.

The jewellery designer Celly O’Brien is one of the few who knows what it is like to live in the complex. Originally from Kinsale, she lived there for eight months, and switched to where she now resides in the west side of the complex. She says the apartments are of a high standard, and not having many neighbours suits her. “I lived in the centre of Kinsale, and it was like living in a glasshouse, and so I wanted to get away from that for a while. The apartments here are like nothing you’d see in Ireland. I could have moved to other new developments, which were cheaper, but many of them were boxes without even light bulbs in them. For the same price here I get everything. I’d like to stay living here.”

Izabela Bastek lived for a year in a one-bed apartment on the third floor on the west side of the complex. She moved out in late 2010, partly because of the high rent – €900 per month – and partly because she found living in the development lonely.

“There were no neighbours that I knew. Sometimes the security would be walking around and I could hear the doors echo around the building,” says Bastek. “There was probably no furniture in the apartments above and below me, so every time someone was closing the door to the fire stairs I heard the door banging twice or three times. There were maybe two apartments rented in my area, one above me and one below. The area had four floors and four apartments on each floor, and maybe three were rented in total. It was hard to meet people.”

On one corner of the development, the El Vino restaurant seems to be doing a steady trade, with customers sitting both indoors and outdoors. Owner Angie O’Brien has been open for business here since July 2009 and has built up a solid reputation. “I looked at it for the first time in September 2008,” she says. “By the time everything went through with solicitors it was a few months later. People didn’t realise what was coming down the road then. I certainly didn’t.” O’Brien had envisaged running her business in the midst of a new urban community, and had the majority of the apartments in the complex been occupied by now, her passing trade would be a lot higher.

“The way I had envisaged this place originally, which tied in with the developer’s vision for it, it would have been a dream. But nobody forced me to come in here,” she says. “I mean, have you seen any of the apartments? They are spectacular. I think if it had been built two years previous, it would have been full. It is never going to go back to the way it was or get the money they would have gotten in 2008. I do see it turning, though, and people moving in here. It is not all doom and gloom. I actually really like this place.”

SEVERAL DAYSlater, representatives of O’Flynn Construction offer The Irish Times a tour of the development. Entering the complex, the physical transformation takes me by surprise. There is little sense from the outside of what exists behind the glass fronts. The buildings are offset by an acre of landscaped Japanese gardens by the award-winning designer Martin Hallinan, incorporating lush greenery, waterfalls and finely manicured lawns. It looks like a scene from The Truman Show, and the only people in sight are those working on the gardens.

From the top, the view over Cork city and county is spectacular. It strikes me that the tower dominates practically every other architectural feature in the vicinity, such as the limestone facade of City Hall. The Albert Road, Quaker Road and Albert Quay area of small cottages and two-storey homes are dwarfed by the Elysian’s 71m. This whole area was to incorporate a new large-scale urban dockland development to accommodate the expected increase in the city’s population from 120,000 to 150,000 in the coming decades. Yet, with no other works completed or started in the area, the Elysian stands alone as an architectural anomaly.

Each apartment has both a garden and a city view. The show apartments I see are of a very high spec, with state-of-the-art kitchens, leather sofas and built-in flat-screen televisions. Ceilings are unusually high. You could almost hold a five-a-side soccer game on the terrace space allotted for the penthouses, and each apartment has two parking spaces. Overall, my impression is of a well-thought-out and expertly-executed urban build, but during my time there I see only one resident enter or leave.

Michael O’Flynn speaks to The Irish Times over coffee at El Vino restaurant. O’Flynn has been vocal on the National Asset Management Agency process, and has often spoken up on behalf of developers when others have been media shy.

I ask him first how many units are occupied in the development. “I think there is close to 30 units, between sales and rentals, out of 211. It is all sectioned out and broken up. The standard and quality of the building is second to none. It is spoken about not just in Cork terms but in Irish terms. It is spoken about for the right reasons as well. I mean, I can’t do anything about the market. We pushed a button on this five or six years ago, and all of a sudden everything converges in terms of the market downturn, collapse, call it what you want. The world financial scenario is what it is.”

O’Flynn stresses that in his view people have wanted to live in the Elysian but could not get mortgages. So why didn’t the developers rent out the units? “That’s a good question. I mean, the reality is this went into a transition period from being in the bank to going into Nama. We are now approved in Nama, so we have a business plan, and there will be a lot more of these rented in the next six to nine months . . . That’s where the market is at the moment.

“The Nama structure is that you create a business plan and you come up with a plan for the business, be it here or something we have in London or wherever. That goes through a process, and until you get through the other end of that process, and it’s all signed, then you go back to do what you do. The process here is that we are suggesting that a large number of these will be fitted out, and we will be going ahead with that in the next number of months.”

Does he think the project was too ambitious? “If I had the benefit of hindsight, of course I’d say it was an overly-ambitious project. I would say it will stand the test of time when other projects won’t succeed. When the ghost estates won’t sell, this place will work. I mean, I would say those who buy here in the next number of years are going to get incredible value. When your timing comes out at the worst possible time in the cycle, what can I say? Of course it is overly ambitious. But, having said that, we get our locations right, we get out product right, we get our management of our buildings right. I can’t say we win them all.”

Of the rumours and allegations surrounding the building, including gossip that the developers are unable to commission the building fully, or that there are issues with the structure or that family members were the only ones to buy property, O’Flynn says all of these are rubbish. He also denies allegations that the developers tried to buy back units they had sold and points out that all those who worked on the building have been paid for their services.

THE SINGLEobjection to the Elysian during the planning process came from an 88-year-old person who has lived next to the site for 55 years. I meet the person, who prefers not to be named, in their home in an area nearby known for its association with the immigrant Jewish community.

“I went down to look at the plans in the planning office, and there was all this stuff about it being the gateway to the city and all that,” the objector said. “I said to myself, ‘This is no place for a building like that with all these residential houses around here.’ I thought it inappropriate for the district as it blocked out our view of the northern hills and as well as that it would be too tall and overlooked the City Hall, which is a lovely building. I had to pay €20 to object.”

Now, though, the Elysian serves only to remind this person that a sense of community has long since left the area. “Fifty years ago, it was a little community here and everybody knew everybody and was there to help. You miss that now. It is a white elephant. It was terrible it was built, really. I have no problem with development – it’s the scale I don’t like. During the winter, the odd time you’d see two or three lights on in it.”

Ironically, O’Flynn says he never set out to build the tallest building in the Republic of Ireland (Belfast’s Obel Tower is taller). “When I lodged planning I asked the architect to keep it underneath the other taller buildings. I didn’t want to be the tallest. They got refused planning. I got planning and any other building taller than mine with planning won’t be built now. So having set out not to be in this bloody position of the tallest building in Ireland, I’ve ended up by default in this position.”

Despite the difficulties, O’Flynn remains proud of his achievements in erecting the Elysian and believes it will fulfil the optimism and confidence expressed in its brochure in 2008. “I haven’t heard one single criticism for this building here. It is finished to a high standard,” he says. “I had people here from London, and they say this will stand the test of any international city. And you might say it is only Cork, but why shouldn’t Cork have a fine apartment building?”

Reaching for the sky 17 storeys of offices, shops and apartments that cost €150 million to build

The Elysian development contains a 17-storey landmark tower, which stands 71m high, almost 13m higher than Liberty Hall in Dublin. It also contains offices, shops, a new street, an amenity area and landscaping. It was built on the site of the former sorting offices of An Post, bought in early 2004 for €14 million by O’Flynn Construction.

The complex, which cost €150 million to build, contains 211 residential units, ranging from one-bedroom apartments to three-bed penthouses split over several levels. The one-bedroom apartments were originally on sale for €375,000; penthouses were priced at between €1.4 million and €2 million.

Who owns it now?

Nama has taken over the loans for the Elysian from the banks, so the developers are now clients of Nama instead of clients of the banks. The result is that the plan for the development is likely to be radically different from the one envisaged in September 2008, when it was launched as a beacon for urban living and penthouses were priced at up to €2 million. Despite a guarantee at that time that the sale prices would never be lowered, that situation may change in the autumn when the developers launch a marketing drive to rent and sell the units.