Two big developments were announced for Limerick in the last few days.
The first, and biggest, was the decision by the City Council to purchase the large (very large) block of vacant property on Patrick Street, which has become known as the ‘Opera Centre site’, after the ill-fated Celtic Tiger era shopping centre which never got beyond the drawing board. The Council, with the backing of the Department of the Environment, acquired the site at a pretty good price (reportedly for €12.5 million, down from the €110 million asking price in the good old days) and you’d have to say it is good value for a whole block in the city centre of Ireland’s third city and the capital of the Mid-West region.
I’d be surprised if there isn’t already a fairly definite plan for the site. You don’t throw €12.5 million at a property without having thought about what you’ll do with it. The council will probably have to go through the motions of commissioning a study which will tell them what they want to hear though. That seems to be the way things seem to work in this country.
Let’s assume, for a minute, that the end use of the site is not already agreed in the corridors of city hall. What should be done with the site? OK, retail will obviously form a big part of the mix, but anything on the scale of what was in the original Opera Centre proposal would be a mistake, in my opinion.
The strong support that the original Opera Centre proposal received from the city council and the struggling city-based business community was understandable. For too long, we watched as business flowed out to the suburbs as more and more retail parks sprang up on the edge of the city. The solution, for some, was that the city needed to compete with these retail parks and draw the shoppers back in to the centre. So, when the highly-designed and massive Opera Centre development (the largest development of its kind outside Dublin) was proposed, it was mostly greeted with warm enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, that enthusiasm was somewhat misplaced. In all likelihood, the development would not have had a major impact on the fortunes of the city centre or the city-based business community. Don’t get me wrong. As shopping centres go, it would have been an impressive one, and successful in it’s own right for a number of reasons. But that’s about it. The “if you build it, they will come” thinking is simplistic and ignores the fundamental reason why Limerick City centre struggles on a commercial level, and unless you address this reason it doesn’t matter how shiny or new your shopping centres are, even if they have a Marks and Spencers!
Cities thrive, traditionally, because people live in them and go about their daily lives in them. Just as in many other cities throughout the world, this central truth has been overlooked in Limerick. The thinking of the last 50 or 60 years was that city centres are for shopping and night life, some cultural amenities, but not for living or much else. You shop in the city centre, you live in the suburbs or surrounding countryside and you drive between the two. That’s how it goes.
This perceived wisdom was flawed, however, and has led to a whole host of social and economic problems in cities thoughout the world, including here in Limerick. If you build large residential housing estates on the edge of cities, then businesses simply set up there, because that’s where the people live. As the more affluent population gradually moves to the suburbs, the businesses naturally follow and get drawn away from the city centre (think Crescent Shopping Centre and the many other retail parks on the edge of Limerick City). A knock on effect is set in motion that sees the city centre displaced by the suburbs as the place where these middle class people live and spend their money. At the same time, the city centre becomes the less desired place to live and do business. Rents fall, and general econoomic and social decay sets in.
So, broadly speaking, the reason (at least one of the principle ones) that Limerick City centre struggles economically and suffers from a fair amount of social problems is not because we don’t have shiny new shopping centres in the city centre, but because we don’t have people living in the city centre. At least, not on the scale that we should have. If the cornerstone of city council policy is to get people back living in the city centre, by making it an attractive city to live in, then the city will begin to thrive again, as it did in the past.
So, back to the Opera Centre. We have a rare opportunity to transform the city for the better, so let’s not let it go to waste. By all means, whatever development goes ahead should have some retail function, but if we truly want it to have a rejuvenating effect on Limerick city, we should be looking at using it to get people back living in the city again. It’s a great opportunity for Limerick.
UPDATE: This article got a lot more attention than I expected. For those who wish to read more, I wrote another piece back in October titled “The City We Deserve?” which touches on a lot of the ideas mentioned above, but in a more general context. Thanks for your feedback which is much appreciated.
The other big development I will write about another time.