Rivers and ports have shaped the development of cities for thousands of years. The rivers were the first highways for the earliest settlers, the ports their gateways to the world. The quays provided the foundations for growth, and the docklands which grew around them were the engines that helped drive that development.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the docklands around the lower reaches of the Liffey and the Lee bustled with activity as Cork’s merchant princes exported goods like grain and butter to the world, while in Dublin, furnaces fired in iron foundries and glass bottle companies — one facility alone manufacturing millions of bottles annually to hold Guinness stout — as thousands of shipyard workers built and repaired great ocean-going vessels.

The docks were home to flour mills and fertiliser companies, warehouses, and stores, with vast heaps of coal, wood, and grain a regular feature on the quaysides, as the rivers and ports facilitated the flow of trade and commerce, and of people and ideas too.

But as times and trade changed, wooden sailing ships were replaced with huge container-carrying vessels, port operations intensified and moved downstream, and the docklands fell silent, then into decline, and eventually into decay.

They became run-down no-go areas, post-industrial brownfield sites, haunted by the faded memories of their once-proud maritime trading history — so close to the city centres they helped build and sustain, yet a world apart, a lifetime away.

Now they are being reimagined, regenerated, and reborn — serving once again as engines of growth, but this time, of digital trade and e-commerce, and as homes to people, ideas and innovation.

It was the late 1990s before firm moves began in Dublin to reimagine its docklands region — just a few blocks east of the Customs House.

Inspired in part by the success of the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC), which was created on the city’s northern quays in 1987, the government created the Dublin Docklands Authority which embarked on a massive regeneration programme to create a new vibrant urban precinct further east, as an extension of the IFSC business hub, on both the north and south sides of the Liffey, including the areas around the locks and basins fed by Grand Canal, where people could live, work and socialise.

Using a combination of special zoning designations as well as tax and rates incentives, and thanks to State investment in new infrastructure including the Samuel Beckett Bridge and the Luas docklands extension, the area has been gradually transformed into one of Europe’s hippest city precincts.

Soaring cranes and empty warehouses have been replaced with shiny apartment and office blocks, blending the old with the new, in developments like the Bolands Mills complex, where silos were demolished for apartments, and where 200-year-old protected mills buildings are being restored as an artisan food market and cultural space.

Google set up its European headquarters in the docklands in 2012, and other global tech giants followed, with Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Linkedin, and Airbnb among those now with large offices in the area, creating an internet and social media cluster at Grand Canal Basin, an area which has become known as “Silicon Docks”.

 Facebook parent company Meta's headquarters in Dublin.
 Facebook parent company Meta's headquarters in Dublin.

Leading Irish operations like the start-up hub Dogpatch Labs, the legendary Windmill Lane recording studios, and the film, music, animation and gaming college Pulse College sit comfortably alongside them.

The capital’s docklands is now considered a prime office location, made even more attractive in the post-Brexit world, with clusters of specific economic activity in the financial, legal, and digital media sectors.

But for precincts like this to succeed, offices and apartments are not enough. People need places to meet, socialise, and relax.

The area also hosts the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, the refurbished 3Arena, and the Convention Centre Dublin, which in turn help support the development of hotels like the Marker, the Gibson, as well as countless bars and restaurants.

It has been a long journey, and not without controversy such as that which swirled around the sale of the former Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend.

That controversy has finally been left behind, and planning was granted earlier this year for 570 new homes in the first phase of a huge mixed-use residential and commercial development.

Cork counterbalance

Against the backdrop of this growth in Dublin, and the need for a counterbalance to that development, the Government has identified metropolitan Cork as one of the largest counterbalances, with the Docklands identified as a key enabler in the city region to reach ambitious population growth targets of an additional 105,000 to 125,000 people — a 50%-60% increase — by 2040.

The vast 147-hectare city docks region, which runs from the confluence of the River Lee eastwards towards Páirc Uí Chaoimh in the south docks, and to Tivoli in the northern docks, is the largest brownfield regeneration site in Ireland.

It has the capacity to accommodate 9,000 to 10,000 homes and a residential population of between 20,000 and 25,000 people. It also has the capacity to accommodate 400,000sq m to 500,000sq m of non-residential space and 20,000 to 25,000 jobs, with potential for 3,000 students in further and higher education institutions.

All the studies show that the area has the capacity to accommodate approximately 20% of the 2040 population growth targets.

There has been a lot of talk over the years about its vast potential, with dozens of plans, reports, strategy documents, and blueprints setting out the vision but the State has been slow to back that talk with public investment in enabling infrastructure — the crucial things like water, sewage, power, and transport.

It has meant that the pace of delivery has been slow, and has been largely driven by private developers and investors.

One of the first to put their money on the table was Howard Holdings, led by the late Greg Coughlan, which opened the Clarion Hotel and City Quarter office and boardwalk development in 2005.

The firm followed three years later by securing planning for the massive Atlantic Quarter docklands project, centered on the Live at the Marquee site in the heart of the south docklands, which was at the time the largest-ever planning consent granted by Cork City Council.

A CGI view of what Horgan's Quay and the docklands could look like in the future.
A CGI view of what Horgan's Quay and the docklands could look like in the future.

Working with figures including the renowned UK architect Norman Foster, who designed the Gherkin building in London, and Niall Scott of Scott Tallon Walker, the company heralded the scheme as symbolising a new future for Cork, with a staggering 1.6m sq ft of mixed-use development encompassing an event centre, hotel, offices, retail and apartments.

Around the same time, the Elysian apartment complex was completed on the site of the former An Post sorting office.

It was, for a time, Ireland’s tallest building, and came to symbolise not just the city’s growing docklands ambition, but the entire Celtic Tiger era.

Two years later, as the economic storm clouds loomed large on the horizon, a company called Templeford Limited, linked to developer Gerry Wycherley, was granted planning for a huge mixed-use development on a 9.5-hectare site within the Marina Commercial Park, also in the south docks.

The site was formerly part of a Ford and Dunlop manufacturing facility and the plan included 880 residential units; 61,000sq m of office space; 18,500sq m of business and technology/research accommodation; just under 12,000sq m of retail use; and 1,000sq m of commercial use, as well as a range of retail, bar, restaurant units, cultural, and civic spaces.

It was granted planning with a range of conditions; two of which related to general and special development contributions, and both of which the developers appealed to An Bord Pleanála, raising concerns about the calculation of the floor area and claiming “double-counting” of certain figures to calculate the contributions.

The board ultimately upheld the council’s decision and the development never proceeded.

Then as the economic crash hit, the recently completed Elysian lay largely vacant, seen by many then as a monument to the crash.

The Atlantic Quarter project and the Templeford scheme were shelved, and hopes of development in Cork’s Docklands sank for the best part of a decade.

Docklands' potential

When the economy finally recovered, the 2016 office developments at One Albert Quay and just few years later, the massive Navigation Square scheme almost next door — the city’s largest office development — reminded the city of the docklands’ potential.

They both replaced port-related infrastructure such as coal yards and warehouses as regeneration inched slowly eastwards into the traditional docklands heartland, helping to attract hundreds of jobs to the city.

In recent years, there has been a surge of private investment into the city’s docks, estimated in the region of €1bn, with JCD developing the Penrose Dock office project in the first major scheme on the north docks, and BAM and Clarendon developing the adjoining €400m HQ office, the Dean hotel and apartments scheme — all within walking distance of the city’s train station, which is itself, undergoing a massive state-funded investment, to face the river and embrace its docklands setting.

They have all helped attract tech, banking, investment and renewable energy companies like Apple, Johnson Controls, Arup, Investec, Malwarebytes, PwC, and investment giant, Clearstream, a services arm of the Deutsche Börse Group, Grant Thornton, Morgan McKinley, EI-H2, and Green Rebel.

Planning has also been granted for the soaring 34-storey hotel on the Port of Cork customs house site, and the 1,000-unit residential scheme proposed by Glenveagh on the Live at the Marquee site.

But the massive regeneration proposed by O’Callaghan Properties of a large block of real estate just off Kennedy Quay, including the landmark Odlums building, has been described as the first big step into the traditional docklands area.

The scheme — which was valued two years ago at some €350m — includes a mix of offices, 164 apartments, retail, and a 130-bed private hospital run by French group Orpea, and has the potential to create 5,000 jobs.

The Rehabilitation Hospital proposed for Cork 
The Rehabilitation Hospital proposed for Cork 

The granting of planning has been appealed to An Bord Pleanála, with a decision due early in the new year. O’Callaghan Properties is also working on plans for more than 1,000 apartments on the adjoining Gouldings site.

But despite the grant of planning for thousands of residential units on docklands sites, none have been built yet, including the 300 or so permitted on the HQ site, or on the Glenveagh site, or on the former Sextant site, where controversially, plans for an apartment block were abandoned entirely in favour of another office block, which has since secured planning.

Despite a housing crisis, developers have claimed for some time that apartment building is just not viable, leading to a number of reports and several calls from Cork Chamber urging the Government to intervene and remove this roadblock.

Nevertheless, the planning for a new urban quarter continued, with the city docks a key focus in the drafting of the new city development plan, which was adopted this summer, the first for the newly expanded city following the 2019 boundary extension.

With sustainability a key focus of the plan, and the “15-minute city” the new ambition, the city docks has been designed to be a significant new sustainable residential neighbourhood, acting as an extension to the city centre, rather than a competitor, with a strong economic role and a sustainable green lung for the city, part of which has been delivered by the opening of the first phase of Marina Park, which opened last summer, and where work on phase two, a massive revamp of the Atlantic Pond area, is due to get underway next year.

The State has finally pledged substantial public investment for the city under the landmark public transport plan, CMATS, which includes the BusConnects scheme first, followed by a €1bn east-west light rail system.

Gamechanges for vision

Then in early 2021, came two potential gamechangers for the docklands vision.

It was confirmed that a new delivery office for the area was being established by the Land Development Agency and Cork City Council to identify landbanks with housing potential, and to work together to overcome potential barriers to development.

And in March of that year, Taoiseach Micheál Martin stood on Kennedy Quay to announce a €400m investment in the city — the largest investment by the public sector in Cork City in the history of the State.

Just over €46m was allocated to the regeneration of the Grand Parade area, to include a revamp of Bishop Lucey Park, public realm improvement works in Tuckey St and South Main St, and to help progress plans for a new city library, in an area opposite the proposed events centre site.

But the bulk of the funding, €353m, was earmarked to fund transport and mobility, public realm, and flooding and drainage works in the docklands to help prime it for development.

Planners want it to be one of Europe’s finest examples of the 15-minute city concept, with a 75% mode split target for walking, cycling, and public transport.

 Cork's docklands. Picture: Larry Cummins
Cork's docklands. Picture: Larry Cummins

For a modern public transport network to function successfully, the city needs delivery of an east-west light rail system, connecting the western suburbs, through the city to the docklands, it will need a vastly enhanced bus network, as is proposed under BusConnects, and it will need an enhanced role for Kent Station as a multi-modal interchange hub, allowing commuters to interchange seamlessly from bus to enhanced suburban rail services.

Work on BusConnects is under way, as is work on Kent Station, while the Cork light-rail route feasibility study is currently being prepared by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, with a completion date of late this year or early next year.

The docklands plans also include three new bridges to help deliver that multi-modal connectivity between the city docks and Tivoli docks, and the wider metropolitan Cork area.

One of the bridges will connect Kent Station to the south docks for walking and cycling, with the proposed Eastern Gateway Bridge near Páirc Uí Chaoimh catering for bus, cycle, pedestrian and general traffic, with a pedestrian and cycle bridge only proposed at Water St.

The city docks contain several heritage assets, including the quay walls, the port-related buildings such as those on the Custom House Quay and the Odlums building, the various railway buildings and the industrial buildings, including the Ford factory developed from 1917, and its internationally significant collection of buildings, which all reflect the origin and role of the city and its development eastwards.

Some are visual landmarks; others are protected, but the hope is that those that can be restored and reused, will be, and that all will be framed appropriately as development plans come forward.

Public open space is also seen as vital in the new docklands, with Marina Park serving as a major regional asset at the eastern end, but with clear statements in the plans of the need for quayside amenity areas on Horgan’s Quay, Custom House Quay, Albert Quay and Kennedy Quay, for a linear park extending from Kennedy Park to Kennedy Quay and also on Horgan’s Quay to the north of the River Lee, and with a linear park on Monahan Road.

Despite the uncertainty caused by the war in Ukraine, and soaring construction costs, there is a real sense now that everything has lined up to finally unlock the potential of the Docklands.

Private developers are coming forward with plans, companies want to locate there, and offices are being built. But these people will need homes.

And until the apartment building viability issues are addressed, there are concerns that the docklands could become just another office precinct and not the new city neighourhood it must become if Cork, and Ireland Inc is to thrive.

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