There has been a decidedly mixed reaction to news that planning permission for a modified version of the proposed retail centre on the Dublin Road, recently rebranded Horizon Mall, has been refused.
Comments posted on the Limerick Leader’s Facebook page and published in this edition on page 6 are – we suggest – broadly indicative of the public’s response. For some, the decision was plain “ridiculous”. For others, it was “brilliant”. Regardless of the differing views, the sheer level of the response was good to see, as it indicated a level of engagement that is not always there when similarly important decisions are being made locally. The worst scenario would have been apathy.
Readers of this column will be well aware that the Limerick Leader’s opposition to Horizon Mall was established early and forcefully. Therefore, we of course welcome the planning decision. We are mindful that it is not commonplace for local newspapers to resolutely oppose developments that carry the potential of a very significant number of new jobs, particularly in a difficult economic climate such as this. We fully appreciate the strong desire on the part of many local people to see a branch of Marks & Spencer finally opened here, after all these years. And yet, our judgment remains that the price to be paid if this development did get off the ground would be too high, when the impact on an already struggling city centre is factored in.
Among the comments of some of those unhappy about the decision, there is a pessimistic view that the city centre is already a hopeless case. Too many empty shops, a serious absence of the kind of retail offering to be found in the centre of Cork and Galway, anti-social behaviour from a small but objectionable minority: these are all understandable reasons for the lack of footfall that has pushed far too many once successful businesses to the brink. To suggest that the city centre has nowhere near enough compelling retail attractions is merely stating the obvious. The buzz in town – on a good day, when the streets are close to full – can be excellent. But the typical, everyday experience remains flat.
Having made the correct decision, it now falls to Limerick City and County Council to urgently restore confidence in the city centre. The Limerick 2030 plan was widely welcomed but the need to demonstrate that positive change is coming soon is now overwhelming. There is talk here and there about the plans for the vast Opera Centre site but we have been waiting too long now for confirmation of what is going to be delivered – and when. Local patience is not so much thin as close to non-existent.
True enough, the wider problems will take a long time to fully address. But in order to vindicate the decision on Horizon Mall, the council must provide, in the very short term, clear and substantial evidence that the city centre’s recovery is about to start taking shape. Ambitious plans printed on glossy paper and illustrated with architect’s drawings are one thing, but what’s needed now is the sight of bricks and mortar.