A City Rising...Towards What?
In the space of two weeks, a spate of prestigious developments has been announced for Cork, bookended by the deaths of two homeless men.
A second death in two weeks
At Penny Dinners on Monday, the mood is grim: another death of a homeless man in the small hours of the morning, just over 12 hours before we speak, has left Caitríona Twomey despairing.
Leon Kavanagh was found collapsed on Coburg Street on Friday night, and taken to the Mercy Hospital. He was put on life support. His thirty-first birthday was on Saturday. He died at 2:20 a.m. on Sunday, March 21.
For Caitríona, a stalwart city homelessness activist, these fatalities are a horrifying inevitability, something she warns of on a regular basis and with increasing urgency. Covid-19 restrictions and delays to services have now added to the toxic brew of soaring rents and circling vulture funds that had Penny Dinners under increasing pressure well before the events of 2020.
The current climate for Cork’s growing number of homeless people is nothing short of deadly, Caitríona tells me.
“Some of the people we have now are so far gone you can see it in their faces,” she says. “There’s a few, and you know they’ll be the next to go. Their demise is very visible to us. Those with addictions, or mental health issues. It’s much bigger now, there’s more of it. It’s all intensified and there are going to be more deaths on the street.”
I hadn’t called Caitríona for the news of Leon’s death: I had been seeking her response on a different matter.
It’s been a week of glitzy, ambitious announcements for Cork city: a wave of costly developments that people like Leon and Roman will never be allowed to set foot in.
Ireland’s tallest building, and money, money, money….
Just this week planning permission was granted by An Bord Pleanála for Ireland’s tallest building, a five-star hotel on the site of the old Port of Cork buildings, of which more later.
The plans for another hotel on the site of the former MacKenzie’s garden centre, once home to the ramshackle hub of spontaneous creativity that was the Camden Palace Hotel arts centre, were also unveiled.
Penneys announced that they are set to double their floor-space at their Patrick Street premises, in a move hailed by many as reassuring to the city’s embattled business community: where shoppers go, diners and those in need of a constant coffee fix will surely follow.
Last Friday, Micheál Martin was in town to announce a €405 million regeneration package, including the €353 million Cork City Docklands Project, which, he said, would “transform the recreational, residential and commercial areas, and prime the docklands for significant follow-up private sector development."
€405 million works out at €174,118 per homeless child
It’s understandable for the Taoiseach, floundering as he is in the increasing quagmire of the covid-19 fallout, to want to make offerings to Cork’s “business community.” The Docklands development has been earmarked since Ireland 2040 plans to double the size of Cork city were announced, but the timing is definitely politically right to try to drum up a little positivity.
But listening to his announcement, I couldn’t help but think about the 2,326 children living in emergency accommodation in this country, the thousands more “hidden homeless,” sleeping on sofas and in whatever space extended family can carve out for them.
Maybe it’s personal, but I would have been far more impressed with Micheál Martin’s statesmanship if the announcement had been the elimination of child homelessness. After all, €405 million works out at €174,118 per homeless child.
Certainly, “thousands of houses” is one of the promises for the dockland area, but this can’t possibly keep up with the stated aim of increasing Cork’s population by 140,000 in the next 20 years.
And with a political class so disconnected from reality that they consider €300,000 to be “market value” for affordable housing, the funnel effect for homelessness created by developer-led hiked land values and astronomical rents is going nowhere, even as plans get underway to transform Cork into a veritable metropolis.
What would Caitríona Twomey, working on the coalface with the city’s most vulnerable, make of the Taoiseach’s announcement?
“If he came and made a joint announcement, addressing the whole of society, I’d be more impressed,” she says. “The only good thing about that regeneration programme would be if it was regeneration for all, but it’s not. It has to be all-inclusive.”
“He can say it’ll look great: will it look great to the people who are dying on the streets or who are stuck in one room bringing up their children, trying to do zoom calls in a B&B room for their children’s education?”
As far as Caitríona is concerned, to double the size of Cork city, we need to begin by catching up on the already overstretched services in homelessness, mental health and other areas: doubling the size of Cork will double the number of vulnerable people, unless we’re not really looking at a city designed for all.
Double the city, double the numbers needing help
“We have to be gearing up for that,” she says. “There’s no point in saying, ‘we’ll do this and it will probably be alright.’ It won’t be alright. We’re already short of homes, we’re short of treatment centres, we’re short of emergency services for mental health.”
“They seem to be able to pull money out of somewhere for some things, but not for others.”
Caitríona says she fears that what’s being created is something that “will be untreatable. Patching things up with a sticking plaster afterwards is not good enough: the wound is already festering.”
When I was growing up in Cork city, homelessness was a very specific kind of problem. There were several familiar figures: mostly older men, mostly with alcoholism, who wound up back on the streets again and again. They were shambling, harmless, tragic figures, few in number, and often irretrievably damaged by the events in their lives. One old gentleman told me once, sitting in the Peace Park, that he had gone through the industrial schools.
This is a far cry from what Caitríona describes today, where whole families come to Penny Dinners for a hot meal. While addiction and mental health issues are still very common amongst rough sleepers, it’s been clear for years that what we’re now seeing is a vast societal shift towards a system laden with entrenched inequality.
Do we really want to be the kind of society that invests in glass and steel skyscrapers while children sleep cramped together in B&Bs? Where it’s just accepted that the homeless are collateral damage, the human detritus of development?
The kind of city that responds to a crisis in access to basic human services by withdrawing services still further, like in San Francisco, where human excrement has become a problem due to the number of rough sleepers and the lack of free public toilets?
Urban living and mental health
Caitríona places an understandable emphasis on mental health services: a high proportion of those she sees and feeds on a regular basis have underlying mental illnesses.
We know that high-density urban living is itself a stress factor that may worsen mental health, linked to a 39% increase in mood disorders, a 21% increase in anxiety disorders, and a doubling of schizophrenia, according to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UDMH).
The UDMH is a think tank founded in 2015 to research the connection between mental health, mental illness and built environments, and to develop mitigations which can be built into design.
“Designing spaces to promote good mental health – and to support people with mental health problems – is an integral part of building a sustainable city,” Layla McCay, the UDMH’s director, said in an interview in The Guardian.
A short personal interlude: who gets to design things?
At a day-long event hosted by Cork City Council in 2019 dedicated to the idea of unlocking the upper storeys of pre-existing city buildings, I got chatting to one of the city’s planning department – I won’t name him or detail his role, because this was not an interview, just a chat over coffee.
He was enthusing about high-density urban living. I asked him what resources he used to factor in mental health and wellbeing considerations, given what we know about high-density urban environments being stressors. He looked utterly blank. It was not something he had ever considered before.
On a recent cycle down the Greenway to Rochestown, I passed a familiar Irish sight: a semicircle of former council houses, pleasant enough little semi-detached homes of a certain era, gathered around a crescent of green, on the side of the road miles from any shops or services.
These houses were built before car ownership was the norm it is today. As I cycled past, I thought, a man definitely designed that. A man who never had to stand in a bus in the rain with a buggy and four bags of shopping and a screaming toddler definitely decided to put these houses out here. Because on paper, from a remove, it looked like a perfectly charming idea. For someone who never had to live in it.
And it feels like we’re still stuck with male-centred design. Big gleaming, phallic elitist structures designed to win architectural awards, ego-driven structures.
At least, the “screw you, Dublin” response on Twitter to the news that the Port of Cork buildings are set to become Ireland’s tallest building, a 140m, €150 million five star hotel, felt that way.
Speaking of architectural awards: did nobody get the memo??! Gleaming glass and steel money-mountains are so last century.
The Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious prize in architecture, has just gone to a French duo whose utterly 21st century motto is “Never demolish, never remove – always add, transform and reuse.” If only they were in charge of the Docklands project…we might get value for money, the optimisation of the beautiful existing buildings in what I fondly refer to as Cork’s Steampunk District, and some cash left over to put towards the kinds of services Caitríona Twomey is warning us will be needed.
The Odlum’s building, an ideal site for a new museum, and the hulk of the R&H Hall are two such buildings worth working with, worth protecting.
Artist John Adams thought the Port of Cork buildings were worth protecting. On Wednesday, the news broke that An Bord Pleanála had given the go-ahead for construction group Tower Holdings’ plans for Ireland’s tallest building in the middle of the two hundred year old bonded warehouses that currently occupy Cork’s ‘Île de la Cité’, where the north and south channels of the Lee meet.
John was one of three objectors to the planning application, but the only private citizen: the other objectors were An Taisce and Cork Georgian Society.
“The warehouses were built during the time of Napoleon, by French prisoners on Spike Island,” John tells me. “They were skilled masons and the stonework in those buildings is second to none. The woodwork is amazing, the locks on the doors are incredible.”
John, who lives in Cobh, started his campaign to preserve the Port of Cork buildings seven years ago, contacting local councillors and TDs and trying to elicit a commitment that the bonded warehouses would be kept in public ownership. A petition gathered over 2,300 signatures, but to no avail.
Today, he’s not mincing his words in his response to the news that his appeal has not been successful.
“Simon Coveney promised me he’d fight to keep it in public ownership, and not long after that, he was on the cover of the Echo shaking hands with the guys from Tower Holdings and saying what an amazing thing this was going to be for Cork city,” John says. “From that moment on, he put all his efforts into promoting skyscrapers in Cork. I would say shame on him, and on all the councillors in Cork city for not protecting our heritage. They don’t give a damn.”
A maritime centre
John wanted the Port of Cork buildings converted to a public museum and heritage centre inspired by Cork’s connection to the sea.
“This is Cork’s most important heritage,” he says. “We’re a port, and that area of the city has been vital for hundreds of years. The trade that came into the city came in through there.”
“My vision was to turn it into a world class maritime museum, with a ship there permanently, as an exhibit. You could have Meitheal Mara (Cork’s currach-building community boatyard, currently based in the city but earmarked for relocation) there, you could have really nice cafes and restaurants, you could have arts and crafts there. All open to the public.”
The plans granted by An Bord Pleanála include a “maritime-themed visitor centre,” perhaps a nod by developers to John’s vision for the site. But John says one room dedicated to heritage in a commercial enterprise is “Mickey Mouse stuff”.
“The fact that it’s going to be a five star hotel means that most of the people in Cork won’t even be allowed in the door.”
Cork City Council are, meanwhile, hailing the development for the reverse. “This project will deliver a tourism, economic, hospitality, cultural and amenity proposition on a riverside site not previously accessible by the public,” Ann Doherty was quoted as saying in a tweet by the city council’s social media team.
But John doesn’t buy this approach, which he sees as offloading a public responsibility onto a profiteering corporation, taking credit for providing public access which is thin at best. The interest in a profit margin is obvious, he says, when you look at the contrast between neglected areas of the city and those the developers are flocking around.
“Our city is run by a corporate executive that have sold their soul to the corporate world,” he says. “Look at Shandon Street, Barrack St, Blackpool: so many neglected areas of the city, normally the poorer areas that the corporate world aren’t interested in.”
The Port of Cork site is not the only location Tower Holdings have high-rise designs on. The sod was turned on the so-called “Prism” building, 15 stories high, last March.
Up is very much the intended direction in the docklands, despite detractors who point out that many successful and sustainable European liveable cities like Barcelona, Paris and Berlin, are relatively high density, but mid-rise ( five to 11 stories high) and have been for centuries. That high-rise living doesn’t suit many of the groups that Cork most needs to cater to: families with young children, the elderly, people with disabilities, those with mental illnesses. That high-rise can be isolating, difficult to negotiate and of course, even dangerous.
Fears that a triumvirate of The Elysian, The Prism and the Port of Cork will now be used to establish a self-referential skyline precedent for Docklands development are well-founded.
In its Port of Cork decision, An Bord Pleanála said the 34 story building would “attain primacy in an emerging cluster of high buildings at this transitional location between the city centre and the docklands.” So it’s granting permission on the basis that other high rises are expected. And future high rises will be granted on the basis that the Tower Holdings development is already there.
John Adams now has time to consider launching a judicial review of An Bord Pleanála decision, and it’s a battle he’s not sure he’s able to take on. But his deep belief that this development is wrong for Cork is unshakeable.
“I can assure you that I’ll be outside picketing that hotel if it opens, and saying shame on the councillors of Cork for destroying the heritage of the city,” he says. “There are a lot of people who hate what’s happening to our heritage and if we don’t act now, there’ll be very little left of the old city.”
Nearby recent attempts at integrating existing heritage at office buildings such as Navigation House and Horgan’s Quay are met with contempt by John. “Those buildings are fucking destroyed,” he says.
“Navigation House, to me, is the absolute worst example of what’s happening, it’s so bad you almost wonder if it’s a joke.”
John is not anti-development. He just wants to see developments that are genuinely sensitive to Cork’s heritage and to the needs of Cork’s inhabitants, he says.
“One point I’ve been making all along is that I don’t object to a skyscraper going up somewhere on an empty piece of land,” he says. “I’ve no inherent objection to tall buildings or progress, but what I do object to is our heritage and beautiful old buildings being destroyed or swamped in horrific modern developments.”
On the quays, taking photographs for this piece, I bumped into a cameraman for Virgin Media News. I asked him what he was filming, and he said it was a section with someone from the Construction Industry Federation, for a section on “the return to Ireland’s building trade.” The chosen backdrop was the Port of Cork buildings.
I thought, not for the first time, that one of the things Ireland gets so wrong is in misidentifying who the stakeholders in a given conversation are.
The stakeholders for Cork’s Docklands development, and for the doubling of the city, are the people who inhabit the city. The people who live, work, raise families, get sick, and die in Cork city. And most inhabitants are not the models in architects drawings, the fictional average “office worker.” There is no such average human. We are all a constantly shifting patchwork of needs.
We are students, the elderly, pregnant women, small children, teenagers, people with mobility issues, artists, small business owners, migrant workers both short and long term, people with illnesses both physical and mental. And yes, we’re even homeless people.