Monday 23 April 2018

Jewel in Cork's crown tarnished by car row

Traders in St Patrick's Street warn of risks of pedestrianisation

WALKING AWAY: St Patrick’s Street in Cork is reportedly suffering from low footfall since the council restricted access for cars. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/ Provision
WALKING AWAY: St Patrick’s Street in Cork is reportedly suffering from low footfall since the council restricted access for cars. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/ Provision
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

In the city of Merchant Princes, St Patrick's Street has always been Cork's undisputed 'jewel in the crown', so any threat to it and its traders is taken as a threat to the wellbeing of the city itself.

Hence the fury of the reaction to the decision at Easter to ban cars from the main thoroughfare every afternoon.

The knock-on effect on businesses along Cork's prime street - some traders reporting footfall down more than 50pc - is claimed to be so great as to prompt many to warn St Patrick's Street is in danger of becoming a beautifully pedestrianised ghost town.

Of more immediate import for City Hall was the warning that plummeting trade and profits could be followed by a commercial rates protest.

Tom Durcan, a spiced beef trader in the English Market, said the car ban has been "a total disaster for trade". "No business can sustain their retail trade being cut in half. It is simply not possible," he said.

Other Cork Business Association (CBA) members warned that the afternoon car ban could spell the death knell for small and medium sized traders unable to sustain the short to medium-term losses.

"If they want a street that is packed full of UK high street stores, banks and mobile phone shops, they are going the right way about it," one trader said.

Fondly known to locals as 'Pana', St Patrick's Street is far more than just the living and breathing heart of Ireland's second city.

The wide graceful boulevard sweeps from the River Lee, past the statue of Cork's temperance priest, Fr Mathew, underneath the famous Eason's Clock and up to the Queen's Old Castle complex before taking a sharp left turn and transforming into the Grand Parade.

The story of St Patrick's Street is proudly the story of the city.

It survived the rampage of the Black and Tans during the War of Independence.

It bounced back despite €100m worth of damage being caused to nearby streets by the disastrous floods of 2009. It endured years of disruption from the Cork main drainage works - only to re-emerge even more graceful thanks to a tasteful €13m redesign by Catalan artist, Beth Gali.

The legends of the street are many. It was just off the junction of St Patrick's Street and St Patrick's Bridge that the late Taoiseach Jack Lynch fought back tears after learning of the death of his hurling team-mate, the incomparable Christy Ring.

Even the RTE hit comedy series, The Young Offenders, featured its own homage to the street and the city centre.

As millions of euros were spent on suburban shopping centres in the 1980s and 1990s, St Patrick's Street fought back with the hugely successful Owen O'Callaghan-led Opera Lane redevelopment.

Famous old Cork stores, such as Cash's and Roches, were given a new lease of life under new brands, Brown Thomas and Debenhams, and continued to thrive.

But some traders now warn that the car ban and the relentless drive towards pedestrianisation represents the biggest challenge ever faced by the historic location.

A dramatic reduction in street parking from the flood protection works in Cork is yet another headache.

Stung by the avalanche of criticism over the car ban, Cork City Council has moved to compromise on the major concerns involved and has appealed for traders to give the measure a three-month "settling-in period".

Chief executive Ann Doherty has confirmed there will be a special marketing campaign to support city centre trade as well as park-and-ride and multi-storey car park incentives.

"I am so mindful of the challenges that businesses have," she said. "I am listening to them. What I am asking is at least to give this a reasonable period of time to work."

However, city centre traders don't underestimate the scale of the threat now posed by the combination of the afternoon car ban, parking costs and the growing attraction of suburban shopping centres.

Mahon Point has for years had plans in place for a second phase expansion, while Wilton Shopping Centre is the focus of a massive €100m redevelopment plan.

"We should be giving people as many reasons as possible to come into the city centre and spend their hard-earned Euros, not making it harder for them," Mr Durcan said.

Sunday Independent

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