We all know the image. In 1932, amid the Great Recession, eleven construction workers sit with dangling legs high above Manhattan’s skyline, enjoying lunch atop a skyscraper. Staged to promote the construction of the Rockefeller Centre, the photo has since become synonymous with Irish immigrant workers and the development of downtown New York.
Some 90 years later, if recent planning applications are anything to go by, it appears that construction workers will soon be working on tall buildings across our own evolving skyline.
Encouraged by new planning guidelines, in which the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government called for councils to “lift overly restrictive maximum heights” and actively pursue tall buildings in city centres, exciting applications have been submitted for new types of developments which boldly re-imagine the look of Cork Docklands.
Following in the century-old footsteps of cities across the USA and recently those in emerging economies, high-rise buildings are experiencing a resurgence across Europe in places as diverse as Manchester, Rotterdam, Milan and Barcelona.
Back in Cork, in the past six months, planning has been granted for Prism, a 15-story elegant office development inspired by New York’s Flatiron building, directly behind Parnell Place bus station. Across the from the Elysian (currently Cork’s tallest building), Railway Gardens – a 17-story apartment block centred around sustainable transport – has been given the green light. In the Docklands, JCD Group’s application to develop a state-of-the-art apartment scheme with 25 floors awaits a decision from An Board Pleanála. Meanwhile, Tower Holding’s proposal for a landmark 34-story hotel, warehouses and public plaza on Custom House Quay is also pending go-ahead.
Similar changes are happening in Dublin. A landmark ruling in April by the planning authority paved the way for high-rise construction on Tara Street, while Project Waterfront in the North Docklands includes a new 44-story tower.
Building Up Instead of Out
It is incredibly existing to have this scale of transformational development in Ireland within immediate proximity to existing city centres.
Building up instead of out has long been advocated to optimise our urban footprint. As an example, better spatial planning and delivery of high-density can play an important part in reducing traffic congestion and avoiding sprawl. In fact, improving core density is the first and foremost principle championed by City Regions Ireland; an urban voice representing the five cities of Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Waterford.
Compact development is also supported by national planning policy and endorsed by both Cork City and County Councils in a joint strategy for the future growth of Cork. Under Government’s Project Ireland 2040, a key focus is that 50% of all future urban population growth takes place in existing brownfield locations.
Looking ahead to 2031, Cork Metropolitan Area’s workforce will grow by 65,000 people. To facilitate this employment growth, we will need 27,300 new housing units, investment in our transport network, additional social infrastructure, places to play and spaces to ride a bike.
Quality of Place
In this context, it is welcome that Cork’s proposed tall buildings are all planned right next to public transport hubs to minimise the need for additional car-based commuting or investment in the road network. Equally important is the engagement of world leading tall buildings experts to ensure proper placemaking and appropriate design. The more people that live, work and socialise in an area, the more vibrant a place will be.
The 2019 Human Development Index Ranking by the United Nations places Ireland third globally for quality of life. Marrying our future economic growth and opportunity with delivery of high-density, placemaking, well-designed communities, and integration of sustainable transport is essential to maintain Cork as an attractive place to live. Quality of life is an increasing priority for anyone deciding where to invest. As a city and country, we need to plan for, and continually improve, quality of place; forever keeping an eye to the world and attuned to the evolving preferences of people.
High Density vs. High Rise
We are at a pivotal point in Cork with development at a larger scale than ever seen before. However, high-density does not exclusively mean high-rise. Well-designed and appropriately located tall buildings can become game-charges for Cork and further identify our Docklands and as a vibrant international location. But we must also continue to value and invest in our historic core. Within our current city centre, the goal of high-density could mean many things: A return of vacant units to city centre homes, above the shop living, or construction of six to eight story apartment buildings that blend well with the architectural style of the surrounding area.
The construction activity on Horgan’s Quay, Penrose Quay and Albert Quay provides a sneak peek of what’s to come. Cork’s Docklands will become a focal point for commercial activity. We must ensure that high-quality public places, sustainable and public transport, and integration of tall buildings at street level are incorporated into the City Docklands rejuvenation from the outset. Public realm upgrades such as the €6.5m Albert Quay investment passed by Cork City Council in September and now subject to a legal challenge, must be developed without delay or we may undermine the advancement of our city.
No one wants to retrofit neighbourhoods in the future when the opportunity is there now, to do this right.
A city rising is, indeed, a beautiful thing. Who knows? Maybe the next iconic photo will be of eleven ironworkers eating lunch atop a skyscraper, high above the River Lee.
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on 26 December 2019 as part of its Cork on the Rise series.