Research from UCC's Centre for Planning Education and Research has urged that re-definition of Cork city's North Main Street as a distinctive urban quarter would boost its profile as a location for living, shopping and recreation. William Brady reports

One of the more pressing planning challenges today is the renewal of our city and town cores. Our urban centres are experiencing fundamental changes to their economic make up and their social context – retail is contracting in some places, whilst employment and food/drink/tourism roles are expanding.

As an example, Cork’s city centre is rapidly becoming an important office-based employment hub and is adding hundreds of new hotel bed spaces. One city-centre street – on the last count – has added nine new restaurants/cafés in the last 12 months alone. At the same time, there is huge demand for residential accommodation in these areas and, with very limited supply, there is continued house price and rent inflation, especially in urban centres.

In a study conducted by University College Cork’s Centre for Planning Education and Research, we explored these issues in an urban regeneration exercise involving our final-year postgraduate planning students – as part of an innovative partnership with the business community in Cork’s historic centre. This comprehensive study revealed much about the kinds of challenges facing these places, and highlighted the opportunity that they present.

We concluded that some key interventions at a national level, combined with some targeted local initiatives, could unlock a huge resource that would go a long way to meeting the various objectives in the government’s ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ strategy. The study also suggested quite clearly that addressing the urban housing issue requires having a strong planning voice right at the centre of the discussion.

Today’s housing crisis is partly a manifestation of the state’s historic reluctance to take urban policy and urban issues seriously.  The 2011 Census results on housing vacancy distribution contained what should have been a clear warning – the very high levels of overdevelopment and housing vacancy in many (mainly rural) areas, accompanied by the lack of headroom in the key urban centres.

It was quite clear that any moderate population/economic growth in our cities would quickly generate a major malfunction in the urban property market – and this is exactly what subsequently transpired. Public policy, however, seemed blind to the spatial implications of the then ‘crisis’, and media was largely obsessed with ghost estates, ignoring the more fundamental challenge associated with the emerging urban housing crisis.

National Planning Framework and urban planning

The new National Planning Framework – Ireland 2040: Our Plan – will undoubtedly prioritise the strengthening of the state’s urban hierarchy and Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government Simon Coveney appears committed to the idea of growing the second-tier cities very substantially. This means building up a small network of strong cities to complement the role of Dublin in national terms and provide regional balance.

This new urban policy approach will be multifaceted and requires a suite of measures to address how are cities and towns are managed, developed and planned. One of the key ingredients of any successful city is having a large, diverse and vibrant population in its centre; this generates essential activity in the centre – supporting local services, fostering economic development and vitality, and promoting social sustainability.

In considering ways to support urban population growth, we often assume it is about ‘development’ or ‘building’. We preoccupy ourselves with issues like land availability, strategic projects, enabling infrastructure, site development, zoning and incentives –  and sometimes policy and decision makers (and commentators!) tend to ignore the vast opportunities right under our noses. Our existing built fabric contains an extraordinary amount of unused space in unused brownfield sites and, especially, on upper floors of established retail/commercial buildings.

The housing crisis will not be solved simply by building swathes of low-density suburban housing in greenfield sites outside our cities and towns; this will just create another type of housing (and transport) crisis. Demographic, economic, cultural and social changes mean that housing demand is now much more diverse, and significantly more urban in character, form and location. This means that we need to produce urban, as well as, suburban, housing solutions. We should also consider how best to ‘sweat’ our existing infrastructure. The built environment in all of our cities and towns is grossly underutilised; it has a surplus of existing infrastructures like roads, power, water, wastewater, public transport, shops, schools and hospitals.

Our study focused on Cork’s historic core (centred on North Main Street), an area that has struggled to reinvent itself as its retail function has gradually declined. We analysed wide range of issues as part of our study, and working closely with the Traders’ Association, discovered that this area presented an enormous opportunity in terms of accommodating significant population growth as part of an integrated regeneration strategy.

The population of Cork’s city centre (the central island and adjoining areas) has actually increased substantially in the last number of decades. It now has a population of almost 17,000, which is an increase of 37% in the last 20 years. This is quite an impressive urban regeneration outcome. This demonstrates the substantial demand for urban living in cities like Cork, despite the limited amount of new developments being provided.

Our studies show that North Main Street alone has a population of 388 persons, living in a mix of small apartment schemes and converted upper floors. However, the analysis also identified high levels of upper-floor vacancy, and substantial scope for, and interest in, additional residential development. Building owners expressed an interest in developing their properties to accommodate housing on upper floors.

The street has significant capacity and its population could easily be trebled through the conversion of upper floors, as well as developing a number of key strategic sites. Our consultations indicated that the building owners are very enthusiastic and are being actively supported through various initiatives by the City Council’s planning/conservation/regeneration team.

So, if the survey shows that there is ample capacity, strong market demand and active interest from property owners and the planners to accommodate development in the historic centre, why is this not happening? Why are we not seeing significant levels of residential development activity in these places?

Problems with bureaucracy and viability

Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, planning is not the problem here; it is actually quite easy to get planning approval in principle for such projects with good design, and with solid professional planning/architectural advice. Our discussion with property owners and the local authority indicates clearly that the problem is actually a mix of bureaucracy (the complex/expensive building control regulation regime) and viability (the difficulty for building owners in securing credit).

The good news is that these obstacles can easily be addressed, at relatively low costs, with a little bit of political will and imagination. If one street in Cork can treble its population at a conservative calculation, imagine the potential housing windfall if these upper floors can be unlocked in other neighbourhoods in all of our cities and towns in terms of new accommodation for young and older people, families, students, professionals and social housing tenants. And all of this in locations with pre-existing infrastructure, health and education services, retail and commercial facilities, public transport and so on.

This is the key to reinvigorating our urban centres and supporting the vitality of these locations – and it requires almost no infrastructure investment.

The building regulatory regime is fragmented, complex, lengthy and expensive; it presents a major barrier for property owners/businesses who may be interested in converting their upper floors for residential use. Separate building control, fire certificate, disabled access certification and commencement processes make very small scale and simple refurbishment projects prohibitively complex and costly. Of course, these regulations have not been designed to sterilise development in our urban cores, but that is the effect that they are having.

At present, the administrative architecture and fragmented nature of local-authority development management/building control systems is a real problem. A streamlined procedure to apply to re-use of existing vacant buildings/upper floors, perhaps routed through a one-stop-shop facility (for specific city- and town-centre locations and for small-scale residential projects) might encourage owners to pursue these types of projects. In addition, this one-stop-shop could take an integrated, and case-by-case, approach to the interpretation and application of these various regulatory processes.

At the UCC Planning Society Annual Conference in February 2017, architect Maoilíosa Reynolds suggested that a streamlined system could yield a time saving of over five months and cost savings for the owner, including statutory fees and professional costs could be over 85%. This system would of course require some resources, for example, a small dedicated facility in local authorities, but such a low cost initiative could be a real ‘game changer’ when it comes to the world of urban regeneration.

Furthermore, why not consider applying the strict building regulations in respect of lift provision/access to collections of buildings in a designated area, so that the minimum standards can be achieved across small districts as opposed to within individual buildings? It is simply not feasible in many instances to achieve these standards on a building-by-building basis – especially with constrained structures in historic areas.

Using an area-based approach, the same overall results for access/safety can still be maintained. Pre-existing designated regeneration zones or Architectural Conservation Areas would be a useful spatial unit to apply such approaches.

Challenges of accessing credit for projects

Discussions with building owners also highlighted the challenges associated with accessing credit for such projects. Traditional lenders are reluctant to invest in this form of development. There may be merit in considering financial incentives for designated areas in order to encourage development activity for upper-floor conversions. However, taxation-based incentives are probably not enough to leverage the type of credit that is necessary.

What is required is some means of partnership whereby small businesses such as shopkeepers/building owners can access credit via state or local authority-backed loan schemes at low interest rates for small scale residential projects/upper floor conversions. The government is due to announce its Vacant Property Strategy Report shortly, which is likely to include some form of modest loan fund aimed at reactivating vacant properties into the marketplace. This will complement the recent Buy and Renew initiative and the Repair & Leasing Schemes which are targeted at delivering social housing.

The state (national and local) would have a direct commercial interest in investing in these loan schemes, as they would benefit through additional revenue from VAT/development contributions, while the additional construction activity and residential development would support local economies in a very direct way. However, a modest government loan scheme is unlikely to be sufficiently transformative to activate enough development activity.

Perhaps some form of housing association/co-operative might be best placed to provide the necessary range of financial/development/building management expertise – as well as access to funding – to partner up with building owners for such projects. They could, in effect, function as investors/partners in development projects, funding and operating bespoke upper-floor residential schemes. These schemes could provide a mix of private/social/subsidised housing, providing the type of tenure mix that the state requires and the market desires.

There are, of course, obstacles to overcoming the regulatory and funding aspects of this approach. However, these challenges are technical rather than fundamental ones. What is pretty certain is that the market on its own cannot, and will not, solve the urban housing crisis or address urban-regeneration prospects. The state needs to become an active agent in urban regeneration and become much more assertive, and interventionist, in how it engages with the property market.

William Brady is a qualified and experienced town planner and lecturer in UCC. Previously, he worked as a planning consultant based in Cork and London, and he has wide experience of urban planning and development issues, urban regeneration programmes, medium-sized European cities and urban and regional economic development. Brady is currently based in UCC’s Centre for Planning Education and Research, where he is involved in research and teaching on a Master’s Programme in Planning and Sustainable Development. O'RiordanCivil
One of the more pressing planning challenges today is the renewal of our city and town cores. Our urban centres are experiencing fundamental changes to their economic make up and their social context – retail is contracting in some places, whilst employment and food/drink/tourism roles are expanding. As an example,...