by Paul Gosling
Visionary or short-sighted? McCormick Properties’ plans for developing over the city’s main artery, the Foyle, have divided people. Yes, we need jobs and investment – but do we need this investment at this location?
It is a question that will determine how Derry will evolve over the next few years. If we get it wrong – specifically, if the Planning Service gets it wrong – we will either be starved of investment that the city could benefit from, or else we create a blight on the riverside that holds back or destroys other exciting, and ultimately more important, plans.
Criticising a development so closely associated with project director Colm Cavanagh is difficult – he has been an exceptionally positive influence for this city. But however much one supports the director, the project still has to be subject to intense scrutiny, simply because of its significance.
My fear is that the McCormick’s scheme will undermine the other projects that are intended to bring more life to the Foyle and that are central to the future evolution of the city. Firstly, and most obviously, is the relationship with Ebrington Barracks. Will Ebrington look as good and stand out if the river itself becomes a development zone? There is also the question about other riverfront schemes, not least that on the site of the former City Hotel on Foyle Street and near the Quayside. It has been suggested to me that other developers are now doubtful about going ahead with schemes they were keen on, simply because their river frontage may disappear.
The first McCormick’s planning application is for a development on the river at Prince’s Quay on the city side, adjacent to the bus station. This is currently sitting with the Planning Service, having already been with the department for several years. But we are edging ever closer to a decision. After a decision is taken, three more proposals will be submitted by McCormick’s, including another building on the river at Abercorn Quay, near Craigavon Bridge on the Waterside.
Some councillors, notably Pat Ramsey, have urged McCormick’s to put to use other vacant sites before moving ahead with the river development. Certainly, there are sites on John Street, Carlisle Road and Spencer Road that are prime and vacant, while various small car parks could be put to more positive use. But we also need a definitive answer about what is to happen on the river itself, or there will be a blight hanging over other schemes and holding back key development proposals.
Personally I am unconvinced by McCormick’s proposal. Welcome though investment is, I would be happier if it did not come with such a risk of damaging the riverfront and the principle of creating a more people-friendly riverscape. On balance, I think the risk to Ebrington and other key sites is too great.
There are aspects to the McCormick proposal that should be welcomed – the idea of bringing the cityside and Waterside closer together. But is this the way to achieve it?
Connecting the two sides more effectively really depends on extending the city centre into the Waterside, which at present the river prevents, along with the disrepair of parts of Duke Street and Spencer Road. Might the two halves of the city be brought together in another way?
In Venice, the most famous bridge is the Rialto – which is a shopping arcade over a river. Extending Carlisle Road into Spencer Road by creating a new shopping arcade across the river, next to Craigavon Bridge might achieve something similar here, but on a larger scale. It would provide McCormick’s with a development that is built over the river, while extending rather than undermining the value of the city centre. Is it realistic? Perhaps. Could it benefit the city? Almost certainly.
This article appeared in the Derry Journal in February 2008