Living in the heart of our city
Due to the enormously disruptive pandemic the ongoing underlying pressure on city centres has been exacerbated and exposed. It is now clear our city centre is going to have to evolve in order for it to be the vibrant and living space it should be in a post- Covid world.
Combined with the major ongoing disruption in the retail sector there is also a housing crisis that needs to be solved, and we believe that there is a solution that can address both these issues by simultaneously looking to our past and our future.
People used to live in the city, over the shop, or in dense residential streets close to their place of work, but unfortunately over the last 100 years there has been a drift out to suburbs and we have vacated our city and left it for retail and commercial uses. These uses are becoming increasing less viable due to the changing nature of our working remotely and shopping online.
We have noticed that there are millions of square feet of space above the street level retail zone that are currently used for storage or are completely empty. These spaces could be converted to living accommodation and would return a population to the city like we had 100 years ago. The advantages to doing this are huge but there are many barriers to achieving this goal, so how can we unlock all this potential?
A focus on developing and regeneration of old buildings would revitalise the city centre making it more attractive for inward investment and add value to existing city assets and thereby create a vibrant and economically strong city core.
So why can’t we convert upper floors in our city centre retail buildings to apartments and be like other European cities?
Recent analysis of this issue for Cork was carried out by a group of planning and construction professionals including Reddy Architecture +Urbanism, McCutcheon Halley Planning, Punch Engineers, EDC Engineers, KSN project management and Deasy Walley Partnership, Quantity Surveyors.
To answer the hard questions a case study was prepared on a building in St. Patrick’s Street to see how the upper floors could be converted to 18 apartments and costs associated were calculated to ascertain its viability.
The conclusion was that the average cost per apartment was in a range of €390,000 to €450,000 including VAT, which makes the apartments expensive to produce. However, when you drill into the figures the actual build cost, including fire safety works, for the apartments is only 48% of the overall cost, the rest is taxes, levies, building regulations upgrades and development costs.
Therefore, the viability gap between actual cost and real cost needs to be bridged in order to unlock the massive potential of the city centre for residential accommodation. This can be done using a two-pronged approach using planning legislation and financial supports.
Firstly, we would recommend the creation of special zones in the city centres where specific planning guidelines for apartments would apply and there would be a consideration in the application of building regulations for the conversion of older buildings to residential use. The current planning and building regulations are designed for new build construction and not all requirements are possible to implement in older buildings. Secondly, we would recommend the introduction of financial supports for these special zones based on qualitive criteria. These financial supports may include the reintroduction of specifically targeted tax incentives, the removal of VAT for residential development in designated areas, and abolition of statutory fees and the provision of grants for upgrading of existing city centre buildings for residential use.
We believe that these financial and governmental innovations are necessary to bring life, excitement and community to Cork city centre by removing barriers and enabling living in the heart of our city. Sean Kearns is a Director at Reddy Architecture + Urbanism, and a passionate advocate for liveable cities. Here he shares thoughts on delivering a more vibrant urban community, a narrative that was initially presented to attendees at a thought provoking Sustainable Cork Programme Webinar.