The Argus

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Town we love so well needs a vision

The town we love so well was tainted in a critique of the planning and development of provincial Ireland in a recent Sunday Times magazine article.

The piece by architect and commentator, Graham Hickey was published in the Culture magazine of the Sunday newspaper and caused a lot of people in Dundalk to stop in their tracks.

In the piece, the author wrote how Dundalk town centre is 'rotting to the core' and how the 'grimness of the street scene in Dundalk town centre sums up the decline in our provincial hubs'.

Hickey, who writes for many of the leading Irish broadsheets on matters like urban decline, architecture and town centre development, pulled no punches in the piece in criticising planners for many of their decisions to build the Marshes Shopping Centre, with its 'preposterous array of fake period facades, including a Russian winter palace, stuccoed Barbie houses, a colonial courthouse and a Playmobil mansion with feature tower, clad a behemoth modern shed' and describing the new Tesco Extra store on Hill Street as a 'sprawling splodge of vulgar red cladding, slanting roofs and proprietary glazing'.

Not since the days of the troubles when Dundalk was described as 'El Paso' by a British newspaper editor has any such article evoked such reaction from townsfolk.

Wounded by the article's headline and the opening remarks in the piece many jumped to defend the image of the town, but beyond the incorrect headline and colourful descriptive critique, thee are those who could only agree with the key points put forward.

It was unfortunate for Dundalk's image beyond the town boundary, that the author had first hand knowledge of the town and thereby used his experience to base an article about urban development and decline which could apply to many provincial towns in Ireland post the celtic tiger era.

During that period towns throughout Ireland developed out of town shopping centres and retail parks and Dundalk was no exception with the Retail Park on the Inner Relief Road, the Northlink Retail Park as well as the Marshes Shopping Centre which spread the town's retail sector further away from its traditional heart.

The recession of the last number of years has exacerbated that problem with many small independent retailers closing down and there is no escaping that many units along the town's traditional shopping streets are empty.

That is history, many mistakes were made in planning and development but the key now is what to do about the problem, bury our head in the sand, pretend it doesn't exist, whinge about articles such as the one in the Sunday Times which may make uncomfortable reading or find solutions to the issues raised.

Those issues, such as out of town development and a fall in population in the town centre cannot be reversed overnight, but a start has to be made somewhere, sometime and soon.

It must start with strategic policies about what we want in our town centre, not for tomorrow but for fiveand ten years time.

Do we want a town centre that closes at 6pm or still has some life in the evening and at the weekend?

In continental towns and cities, families live over shops, this was the case in Ireland many years ago, but as we got wealthier families moved out of their home over the shop to a larger home in the suburbs and the over the shop home became a store or vacant.

How do you reverse that trend without support from council or government offering rates rebates to property owners who develop these premises into modern apartments and homes.

We cannot knock down the retail parks, but government can develop a policy where future out of town centre retail developments will be restricted if a town centre retail occupancy rate is below a certain level.

Our town centres do need a vision for their future to repair the damage of the celtic tiger era.

Irish Independent