LIMERICK City is "leaking" business and trade in the city centre could drop by up to 20 per cent if approval is granted for a major extension to the Crescent Shopping Centre, an oral hearing of An Bord Pleanala was told yesterday.
The hearing – which began yesterday morning – is being held to allow a number of different bodies to voice their opinions on the extension which would host a Marks & Spencer unit as its anchor tenant.
Limerick County Council refused planning permission for the development but the decision was appealed by the applicants, Stapleyside Company Limited, leading to the hearing.
Experts, speaking on behalf of Limerick City Council which has objected to the development, claimed yesterday that the extension would lead to the overall decline of the city centre. However, supporters of the plans said that their proposal satisfies the guidelines set down in the Mid-West Retail Strategy and could easily work in tandem with the development of business in the city.
Acting senior planner with Limerick City Council Kieran Reeves said due to retail decline, 25 per cent of dwellings in the city centre are now vacant, with 50 per cent of the Georgian buildings unoccupied.
"Limerick city centre should be the hub of economic activity in the region but suburban retail development has been growing twice as fast as that of the city," said Mr Reeves. "We have failed to retain the city's place among the retail hierarchy and there is a need to protect that as enshrined in the Mid-West Retail Strategy."
Mr Reeves added that no agreements have yet been signed for the proposed Opera Centre but that potential tenants would be "watching keenly" as proceedings got under way at the hearing in County Hall this week.
Planning consultant John Spain said that, if granted permission, the proposed development – combined with those in Coonagh Cross and Parkway Valley – would have a cumulative impact of at least 20 per cent on the comparison retail trade of the City Centre.
Commercial property specialist Patrick Seymour, speaking on behalf of the City Council, said that Limerick was the only city in the country where retail rents were more expensive in the suburbs – referring specifically to the Crescent Shopping Centre – than the city centre.
Consultant engineer Seamus McGearailt, speaking for the City Council, said there were "serious shortcomings" in the Transport Impact Assessment carried out for Stapleyside. He claimed that the development would compromise the Southern Green Bus Route and undermine the overall transport strategy for the city.
David O'Mahony, of O'Mahony's bookstore, spoke yesterday on behalf of the Limerick City Business Association, saying he had come to "plead for the city".
"I ask you. Walk the main streets of the city, walk the side streets and listen to the silence. Look at the vacant units, some of which haven't even seen tenants," said Mr O'Mahony.
"Nobody in their right minds could say the city is thriving. Customers are telling us that the city is leaking business. There's plenty of evidence of available sites in the city but the level of floor space being granted in the suburbs has demoted the city."
Each of the speakers against the development claimed that it contravened the Mid-West Retail Strategy, but Planning and Environmental consultant Chris McGarry, speaking on behalf of Stapleyside, argued otherwise. Mr McGarry claimed that, due to the large number of amenities in the area, Dooradoyle, had become a town centre and therefore was entitled to prioritise retail development in the area, as dictated in the Regional Strategy.
Jenny Mulholland, speaking on behalf of Marks & Spencer, reiterated that the retail giant gave its full support to the Stapleyside application, saying that the Crescent would best serve the store's needs. She did, however, also state that M&S still desires a second store in the city to complement the proposed one in Dooradoyle.
Mr McGarry added that Stapleyside representatives would continue to give presentations today addressing objectors' concerns, including those regarding the contentious issue of traffic management in the area.