NEW ERA FOR IRELAND’S OLDEST CITY: INVESTMENT CAN UNLOCK THE POTENTIAL OF WATERFORD

The planned demolition, shortly, of an imposing but abandoned century-old grain store on a Waterford quay closes a chapter on the city’s once-treasured industrial and maritime heritage.

Despite certain objections and its listing as a preserved structure, with its steel-reinforced concrete construction style being unique in 1905, the Hennebique building is now a blot on the landscape and has no place in an Ireland of the future.

A new era now dawns for Ireland’s oldest city, insists local Fine Gael senator Paudie Coffey.

Funding pledged from the National Capital Plan in conjunction with Project Ireland 2040 paves the way for one of the most significant developments in the history of Waterford.

Assurances of planned Government support will unlock more than €300m of private investment by the Saudi Arabian Fawaz Alhokair Group in an ambitious regeneration of the city’s North Quays.

“The time has now come for Waterford city and county to reach its full potential,” said Mr Coffey.

“And Waterford city will now have access to crucial capital investment needed to develop critical infrastructure to build capacity and scale so that it becomes the regional driver for economic success within the South-East.”

In early February, Waterford City and County Council approved a planning application which involves a €560m investment project, being driven by the Saudi Arabian company.

It’s set to establish Waterford as a dominant economic and industrial force in the region with its priority status in the Government’s 20-year development plan.

As a result, it is envisaged the North Quays and Michael St/New St Regeneration Scheme will receive €63.5m essential for structural requirements needed to progress the investment scheme.

The funding will be drawn down over three years from the €2bn Urban Regeneration and Development Fund contained in the Project Ireland programme. Project Ireland also approved completion of an Atlantic Corridor, linking Letterkenny to Waterford via motorways through Sligo, Galway, Limerick, and Cork.

The regeneration plan involves huge demolition and the redevelopment of 17 acres on its furthermost quayside as a major retail, office and hotel location.

The proposal comprises 39,600 sq m of retail space, 15,000 sq m of offices, 1,000 sq m of conference/exhibition facilities, 9,000 sq m (200-bed) hotel, 30,000 sq m (300) apartments, a 10,000 sq m visitors centre, 1,600 parking spaces, and a transport hub.

“This plan is very different from previous development plans like the National Spatial Strategy,” said Mr Coffey.

“The plan will put the capital investment behind the planning framework priorities and drive urban growth in cities such as Waterford which will, in turn, benefit its hinterlands and the greater region and catchment surrounding it.

“This investment will transform Waterford and leverage its full potential from an economic, social, educational and healthcare perspective.

“More than ever, Ireland requires strong regional development with strong cities at the nucleus of the regions to counterbalance the unsustainable vortex of economic activity in Dublin.”

In a move intended to maintain inclusivity on both sides of the Suir, the scheme also includes a major retail complex, with 400 parking spaces, on a 4-acre site across the river in Michael St/New St. This site sits close to the present shopping centre, which is anchored by Dunne’s and Debenhams.

The North Quays area is predominantly owned by Waterford Council and Waterford Port, while Michael St/New St is owned by Nama and already has full planning for retail. The plans will demand major infrastructural changes, including a relocation of the city’s railway station, improvements to the Dock Rd and Abbey Rd access routes and construction of a pedestrian & light transport bridge connecting the two focal points.

Meanwhile, the city and county’s deputy mayor, John Cummins, who served as Waterford Mayor during much of the early groundwork, says, “most submissions were in favour, though he noted Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce and Kilkenny County Council did express reservations”.

However, he strongly believes the project will transform the city landscape and expects the creation of “up to 3,000 jobs” post-construction.

Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) designation for Waterford in 2015, he said, was crucial and held a strong appeal for the Saudi investors.

“The draft plan was formally adopted by the council in early February,” said Mr Cummins, “and the SDZ means that, should there be no deference to Bord Pleanála during the subsequent four-week period, planning permission is compulsory.

“This has been one of the main criteria that attracted the consortium.”

Meanwhile, Mr Cummins says the council is awaiting a decision from BP on a compulsory planning order (CPO) being exercised for areas of land on the North Quay site, not in council ownership.

“A decision was expected in January but we now understand it will be announced in March,” he said. “Detailed contracts with Fawaz Alhokair are meanwhile being finalised, subject to SDZ and CPO approval.”

The council, meanwhile, sought State aid to expedite the work on foot of a 40-page report compiled by economic consultants Indecon. Private sector investment in excess of €215m will be required to meet the full portfolio.

Saudi Arabia’s Fawaz Alhokair Group — which intends to invest almost €300m in the venture — represents a set of Saudi companies who focus on retail and real estate across the Middle East, Europe and North Africa.

In its assessment of the development’s potential impact, Indecon’s research showed local businesses believed foreign direct investment-related employment in the region would increase from the current 14,400 full-time permanent jobs to a total close to 20,500.

Irish Examiner