Revamp and restoration

Foyle Street Urban Park. (0204PG83)
Foyle Street Urban Park. (0204PG83)

Derry is looking its best in decades for 2013. The city centre revamp is a cause for celebration, as IAN CULLEN found out this week

Derry looks damn good, some would say it’s never looked better.

Unemployment levels are high, job creation is minimal and mortgage holders are in negative equity but that’s not to say people aren’t revelling in the fact that the city is looking a hell of a lot brighter in the spring sunshine of the City of Culture year.

Regardless of whether the programme of events or even the management of it is to the liking of everyone, one thing is for sure - the short term legacy of the City of Culture designation, at least cosmetically and to some extent in terms of Derry’s collective self-belief, is already obvious. There certainly is a feel good factor around, or at least a feel not-so-bad factor - one example being the hordes of runners out pounding the asphalt in training for the city’s first marathon in decades.

There will no doubt be plenty of people in the ‘what’s the City of Culture done for me?’ camp but at least Derry has the high profile designation and because of it is enjoying some of the biggest funding windfalls ever experienced in the North West. Perhaps of even greater more importance in terms of legacy is the positive international media coverage and worldwide publicity the city is enjoying.

Despite the significant City of Culture influence and various regeneration programmes, perhaps the most stimulating factor for ensuring Derry’s emergence from a troubled past into a brighter future has been the teamwork of city’s stakeholders and decision makers.

More than at any time in the past there has been collective approach to getting jobs done in Derry in recent years.

During a explorative stroll in the city centre to view ongoing and completed revamp and restoration efforts, City Centre Manager Jim Roddy and Ronan O’Donnell, Project Officer at the Walled City Partnership, leave us in no doubt that the co-operation between all the bodies responsible has been “unprecedented”.

Mr Roddy insists that the city is looking its best in many years “only because of everyone working together” to ensure work is carried out strategically.

Even the “age-old” problems of planning have been significantly reduced with “planners involved in all projects form a very early stage,” Mr Roddy explains. And on the subject of traditional complaints, the often vented comment ‘there’s nowhere to park in Derry’ has also been somewhat laid to rest with the introduction of electronic parking space availability signage on the city’s main arterial routes. Although it comes at a cost of £300,000, many motorists seem to be already suggesting it’s been money well spent.

The work carried out to spruce up many of the city’s buildings and streets has ranged from purely cosmetic facade revamps and lighting installations, to large scale restoration projects and the ongoing post war reconstruction of former British Army bases at Ebrington and Fort George.

From new pavements at Duke Street to transformative public realm works at Waterloo Place and the restoration of the Guildhall to the creation of a city centre park and a concert venue, it’s a brave new city - at least aesthetically. Even the controversial - but temporary - introduction of vinyl finishes on vacant properties is going some way to making the urban centre pleasing on the eye. The opening up of the spectacular riverfront on both sides of the Foyle has been a key development while the iconic Peace Bridge breathed new life into the heart of the city.

Much less discussed developments are the uprooting of weeds and moss from roof tops, run down buildings being given a lick of paint and flowers being displayed in window boxes - the beautification process continues on all levels.

The cost of the whole package has run into many millions of pounds of investment of both public and private funding.

However, the partnership approach and input from all stakeholders in the city centre has ensured that the money is being spent in all the right places, says the City Centre Initiative and Walled City Partnership bosses.

All stakeholders are included in the partnership - Derry City Council, Planning Service, Road Service, the various government departments, the Walled City Partnership, Chamber of Commerce, private enterprise, city centre traders, the City Centre Initiative and many others.

The schemes include the Townscape Heritage Initiative, ReStore, Walled City Lighting Strategy, large scale public realm schemes - such as in Guildhall Square and Waterloo Place - urban development grants, the DOE Dereliction Improvement Scheme, the Built Heritage Programme, Environmental Improvements scheme and others.

In the last two years DSD has invested over £17m in a number of projects “to enhance the experience for those living in and visiting” the city. A total of 59 projects have benefitted from the £10m City of Culture 2013 Capital and Community Infrastructure Fund. A further £1.9m has been invested in various public realm enhancement schemes across the city, £450,000 in park and ride sites and more than £4.8m to erect the Venue at Ebrington.

To date over £47m of public and private investment has been committed to the Walled City Signature Project funded by a range of bodies including the Northern Ireland Tourism Board, property owners, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Arts Council and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). Phase One, which is complete, included a number of elements such as conservation, visitor signage and orientation and the regeneration of tourism attractions such as the Tower Museum.

Phase Two is ongoing and has included a Business and Cultural Animation Programme and Environmental Improvements (public realm) as well as the current Built Heritage Programme and Walled City Lighting Strategy.

Its Built Heritage Programme includes major restoration projects at The Playhouse, First Derry Presbyterian Church, St Columb’s Cathedral, The Guildhall, Aras Colmcille and the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall.

The project will also fund the Walled City Lighting Strategy which will illuminate those six buildings, the City Walls and Craigavon Bridge. NITB has awarded £1.4 million to Derry City Council to carry out the work.

A Townscape Heritage Initiative, funded mainly by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and administered by the Walled City Partnership has had significant impact on the look of the city. It has levered grant aid from various schemes to help revamp key city centre buildings.

Ronan O’Donnell explains: “We’ve been knocking around since about 2002 but our first work didn’t begin in the ground until 2004. We got an initial £1m grant from HLF, which along other grants and investment levered, allowed us to carry out £4.5m in terms of work. Now we’ve got a £1.7m grant from the HLF which will be used to lever more funding for a range of projects.”

“We have over 20 properties completed - 15 in phase one and five more in stage two so far, with three more projects on site and three to start in the coming months. It’s a rolling process. Heritage is the key word and our aim is to achieve social and economic regeneration through the restoration of old property. The buildings are not necessary listed but all have character and are included the conservation area. We are involved in all sizes of schemes including major restoration projects such as a the Northern Countries building and the Ulster Bank.”

The ReStore scheme, which is administered by City Centre initiative on behalf of DSD, is designed to spruce up shop fronts and includes provisions for the removal of unsightly outside shutters.

Mr Roddy explains: “The scheme was first seen in Boston and is a town and city centre revitalisation project, targeting the restoration of shop fronts.” He added that the scheme can be availed of “where it is acknowledged that a shop front needs it and it is acknowledged that there is a lack of private capital” to carry out the work.

Restore is just one of the smaller yet essential and complimentary schemes that has allowed Derry to “become a much prettier place in the last number of years”, says Mr Roddy. “All the stakeholders have been working on clusters of buildings at a time so one job compliments the other to transform entire streets.”

Much more work is in the pipeline for coming weeks and months and as long as Derry looks better and better, it can only bode well for the city.