It's been a long time coming but, at last, the long-awaited State funding has been confirmed for the regeneration of Waterford's North Quays.
The government’s announcement means the project, encompassing a 15-storey hotel and conference centre, twin blocks of office space rising to seven storeys, not to mention 300 apartments, has taken one big step towards becoming reality. The site, which has Strategic Development Zone designation, will include a transport hub catering for rail, bus, cyclists and pedestrians, with a link-bridge connecting the North Quays site to Waterford city centre.
Once a natural part of the city's busy port, the eight-hectare site has been empty for so long that many had given up hope. Some would have been excused a last moment of panic when the news came through that the Housing Minister was cancelling his visit yesterday. But fanfare or no fanfare the money is confirmed.
The site has been desolate dockland ever since port activities moved downstream to Belview, rendering it redundant.
This current process can be traced back to the 1990s when a competition was held for a winning design for the north wharf. Launched by Minister Martin Cullen, it attracted major interest but never moved beyond the initial stage. The recession eventually put paid to any plans.
The quays were still singled out by admirers in the intervening years. A 2013 report by consultants DKM viewed the wharf as holding the "potential for a self-contained river-side village –south facing and often sheltered from the prevailing winds”. It envisioned waterside restaurants, boutique hotels, apartments, and offices beside a riverside boardwalk.
"In the shorter term efforts should be made to rid the site of dereliction and to develop an amenity area," it added. This would soon come to be.
Throughout the decades the ambition has been to link Ferrybank with the south quays side of the city, where commercial and social activity is located.
The site's designation as a Strategic Development Zone in January 2016 was viewed as a crucial step. With this in place planning permission for projects within the SDZ would not be required.
The then-Minister of State for Housing and Planning Paudie Coffey stressed that this “fast-track planning framework” would provide recognition of the economic and social significance of the North Quays and allow it to deliver on the regeneration of the site.
It was envisaged that the SDZ would allow for the creation of a new urban quarter attracting large scale investment, creating an “office culture” and generate demand for further office development in the city.
It was later in 2016 when it emerged that a Saudi retail management company was not only interested in the site, but was considering pumping hundreds of millions into Waterford.
The Fawaz Alhokair Group had entered negotiations with the City and County Council, and was signing up to build shopping centres on the North Quays and on Michael Street in the city centre.
The company soon became represented locally by Rob Cass, the Dungarvan native who heads up Falcon Real Estate Developments - the leading private player involved. Fewer Harrington and Partners are lead architects for the project.
The North Quays marks Cass's return to Waterford. Cass, a quick-talking, ambitious man, would eagerly outline his plans for the redevelopment to anyone listening - and plenty were, whether on radio, in print, Twitter or various internet forums.
Meanwhile, the chief executive of Waterford City and County Council, Michael Walsh, has been resolute in his monthly reassurances to councillors since 2016 that the money would arrive from Government.
Walsh has spent a fair chunk of this time in talks for the redevelopment, whether with Cabinet Ministers, senior civil servants or petrol station owners.
The latter arose when An Bord Pleanála was on the verge of holding an oral hearing examining the SDZ proposal, only for eleventh-hour talks meaning the hearing got called off as an objector withdrew his opposition to the project. Planning inspectors were set to open proceedings to a crowded room in Treacey’s Hotel but, after word of a deal made its way around the hotel, it was quickly cancelled and the council could breathe a sigh of relief.
While these discussions continued in the background, work has been taking place in Ferrybank. One of the last reminders of the prior era, the deserted Hennnebique flour mill, was demolished in 2018. The planning application, long-promised, was finally published in December 2019 and permission was granted the following July.
But the relocation of Plunkett Station east down the city’s quay had become a sticking point for Falcon in the multi-million euro project. The company has long insisted that it’s pivotal to have the station as part of its sustainable transport hub because it will mean all modes of movement bring you to the one central point in the area.
However, with today’s announcement, the relocation is now set to go ahead. That means the redevelopment will too.
For Rob Cass, it’s the start of something significant. “It's so important - particularly to young people - to see that things are happening," he says. "Finally Waterford starts to unlock its potential. It's time to get going now."