Tuesday, 26 July 2011
Is Limerick the new Graveyard of Ambition?
When the Arthur's Quay Shopping Centre was officially opened in Limerick in October 1989 it was hailed as a development that would bring a new lease of life to the city. One commentator at the time noted:
“Commerce is the lifeblood of the city and an injection such as this is the tonic to revive and rejuvenate. The opening of such a prestigious and upmarket centre right in the heart of the city is just what Limerick needed to bring life back to its centre.”
22 years later we are in the midst of a heated debate about another shopping development in the heart of the city that was set to revitalise and bring a new lease of life to the city. Forgive me if I am cynical but could it just be possible that the big developments may not be the answer?
Whilst the City Council sat like pregnant ducks debating the future of the city centre, the county council was granting planning all over the suberbs for retail developments that ultimately killed the city. Just last week we saw the vulnerablity of this policy. One of the city’s most prosperous and leafy suberbs was feeling the punch of recession. The last remaining major stakeholder in the ultimate failure that was Castletroy Shopping Centre was being threatened with examinership. If Superquinn was to close its doors Castletroy was facing the reality of a ghost centre right in the heart of the community.
Last week I was given the task of interviewing a number of stakeholders on William St to gather their responses to the prolonged fiasco that has been the roadworks there. I walk that street every day. No one could be oblivious to the sheer chaos that the works have created. Gradually creeping up from Sarsfield St over the past number of months we have almost come to associate the street with noise, diggers, concrete mixers, pedestrian ramps, protective metal fences, barriers, dust, men in yellow reflective bibs and traders with worried expressions.
As I spoke to people on the street I was witness to a man pushing a young woman in a wheelchair down one of the rickety wooden ramps. He then attempted to bring the woman into a shop only to realise that the access ramp was at an angle making it impossible to negociate the chair in the door. The street workers kindly aided the man as they physically lifted the ramp into a more manageable position. This happened as the persistent rattle of drills and clouds of dust filled the air.
I stopped and watched people ‘enjoying’ coffee on Limerick’s cleanest and most enticing street Little Catherine St. How anyone could hear what the person at the other side of the table was saying is beyond me.
Some retailers on William St are happy the work is taking place. It had been too long since anything was done on the street, they say. What they had not bargained for was a series of setbacks and bureaucratic decisions that was ulimately going to delay what should have been a simple process. Established retailers claim 50-60% drops in takings. Tied in with the current economic climate they express serious worries about their ability to continue trading.
Limerick is like a lovely little jigsaw. All of the pieces lie jumbled in a heap and no one knows how to put it together.
I spent a couple of days in Galway last weekend. The town was, as always, a hive of activity. The Arts Festival had just come to an end and final preparations were being put in place for Race Week.
On Sunday morning we decided to have breakfast in Nimo’s under Spanish Arch. As with all the cafes and eating houses that weekend you were invited to queue as tables were at a scarcity. As one table became free new customers were happily seated in what seemed to be a conveyor belt of custom on a summer’s morning. The management were obviously used to this as their ability to control the constant steam of people as well as providing efficient and friendly service was notable.
Upon my return to Limerick just after 1pm on Sunday I decided to get my papers and spent the afternoon in town with a coffee. I may as well have been standing in a incense scented back room in Thompsons.
The contrast between the scene I had left not an hour up the coast and what I was facing in my home town could not be more stark. There is simply no excuse. We can blame rates, we can blame lack of tourists, we can blame it on the religious dictations re: days of rest. A city that is closed on a Sunday in this day and age deserves to fail.
Discussing our urban predicament recently with an esteemed colleague it was highlighted that it has not been unknown for a city to curl up and die. In a recent Newsweek article entitled ‘America’s dying cities’ the following was said of Detroit:
‘Earlier in the decade, Detroit not only thrived from a booming auto industry, but the city also boasted a vibrant music and art scene. Unfortunately, the decline of the auto industry hit this city particularly hard, at one point causing the unemployment rate to shoot up to nearly 50%. Some of those who could afford to move and weren’t tied down by a mortgage likely shifted to other regions with better job markets, evidenced by the decline in the overall population and the number of residents younger than 18.’
Ring any bells? Limerick is not immune to the fate of urban mortality, the death of a city. "Stop comparing Limerick with Galway", I am always told. "It's simply not fair. We don’t have the tourists they have, we don’t have the sea nearby, we don’t have the festivals, we don't have a university in town". We don’t have this. We don’t have that. Excuses, excuses.
Galway was once called the ‘graveyard of ambition’. A small web of poorly planned streetscapes and old derelict buildings was slowly transformed through the embracing of its culture, its physical amenities and its humour. Galway has become the phoenix of ambition. Limerick, ‘Ireland’s third city', has been overtaken by Galway, overtaken by Cork and, I would suggest, overtaken by Waterford, Kilkenny and Killarney also.
There is no immediate solution to our problems but I would suggest that until such time as we have a group of free thinking, goal driven, like minded people running our city we are doomed. Limerick has always been great at defending itself. It is a city ‘well versed in the arts of war’ afterall. Sometimes it is healthier to sit down, take a breath and accept the failures of the past, accept the frightening possibility of our future fate and ensure that it does no come to pass. There is room no longer for those Angela Ashe’s deniers, room no longer for anyone who tells us that we have a vibrant city, room no longer for anyone who tells us the Opera Centre is our saviour, room no longer for anyone who denies us a future.