The Peace Bridge signalled Derry’s transformation since the devastation of the Troubles.
Less dramatic, but just as transformative, has been the repair of twenty five old buildings, under the Walled City Partnership’s Townscape Heritage Initiative [THI].
Buildings, like the former Northern Counties Hotel, and clusters in Waterloo Street, whose commercial pulse had slowed almost to the point of death, have been revitalised.
Back in 2002, before UK City of Culture 2013 was a glint in anyone’s eye, Foyle Civic Trust, Derry City Council, and City Centre Initiative formed Walled City Partnership, delivering an overall investment of circa £6.5 million into the walled city’s north-eastern quarter.
This work has grown steadily from tiny roots to become Northern Ireland’s largest, most successful THI. Approximately one quarter of the funding comes from Heritage Lottery Fund, another 25% from Derry City Council, NIHE, NIEA, DSD, and Planning NI, and the final 50% from the property owners themselves.
The £6.5 million investment translates into twenty five plus retail units, many occupied by locally owned independents, 1,500 sq. m. of office accommodation with 95% occupancy rates.
Funding from the Housing Executive’s LOTS scheme (‘Living Over The Shop’) brought empty floors above shops into use as 22 fully occupied apartments.
The Coyle building, on the corner of Castle Street, is on site, bringing the scheme to 26 buildings.
In contrast to Walled City Partnership’s robust, sustainable heritage-led regeneration success story, at least 26 ground floor retail/commercial outlets inside the walled city lie empty, and as many as circa 112 in the inner city.
This ignores large areas of empty space on upper floors. The true picture is much worse. Owners of twenty five THI eligible buildings have not submitted an application for this attractive grant in more than twelve years.
A look at where these buildings are tells a worrying tale. Mostly empty and at risk, the majority occur on Foyle Street, Shipquay Place, and Shipquay Street – all prominent, city centre streets.
Shipquay Street should be Derry’s Grafton Street or Regent Street, but almost all of the south side of the street is closed morning, noon and night. By anyone’s reckoning, these are among this city’s most important historic streets and building groupings. Yet the pattern of chronic vacancy begs the question: why aren’t they buzzing?
When Richmond and Foyleside Shopping Centres opened, shoppers moved away from Waterloo Street, Strand Road and Shipquay Street. Out of town retail parks drew shoppers away in even larger numbers. Seeing the trend, city centre banks upped sticks and moved to join them. This, and the fact that several Shipquay Street buildings were caught up in the economic crash, leaves one side of the street as dead as a dodo.
Yet only a stone’s throw away a million people crossed the Peace Bridge in its first fifteen months. There’s not much sign of them in Shipquay Street. Why’s that? Next time you come off the bridge on the cityside notice which direction you head and where that takes you. Chances are you’ll turn sharp right along the river, or maybe sharp left. If you want to cross the Foyle Embankment dual carriageway you’ll still walk to the right towards the pedestrian crossing.
Once across you’ll either head to the Guildhall, Guildhall Street, and maybe into Guildhall Square. If you head up Shipquay Street, you’ll probably be on the right hand side going up.
The left hand side is mostly deserted. When a street is empty of people, it takes courage to invest money in repairing run down old buildings, however special.
Ideas for a pedestrian bridge linking the walled city with St Columb’s Park and Ebrington were first mooted back in the early-mid 1990s. The aim was to create a physically unified heart for the city. The Peace Bridge has gone a long way towards this, but we’re not there yet. Over four years ago Derry’s movement patterns were analysed by internationally renowned ‘Space Syntax’. Its findings revealed the single most important action needed to reverse the almost terminal economic decline in the Walled City was achieving a direct pedestrian route from the Peace Bridge into Shipquay Street.
Chronic economic malaise in this and other inner city streets, and persistent nervousness by property owners to apply for very attractive THI funding packages, is proof (if proof were needed) that the greatest obstacle to the full uptake of the remaining THI grant is property owners’ lack of confidence that their investments will turn into viable commercial businesses.
Removing the barrier to direct pedestrian flow from the Peace Bridge into the Walled City caused by the Foyle Embankment’s kit of parts and fast moving cars, is a matter of urgency if we are to reverse the continued economic decline of the Walled City, support completion of Walled City Partnership’s THI Phase II, and ensure the £6.5 million public/private sector THI investment already made pays dividends.