The Government wants more people living above shops. Cork city has already shown the way.
North Main Street in the centre of the city offers an illustration of what can happen in city centres when real efforts are made to see long-empty spaces over shops brought back to life.
In the late 1990s, Cork City Council helped create at least 60 apartments over shops in two pilot projects on the North Main Street, once the leading street in the city in medieval times, and surrounding streets.
The projects proved highly successful and led in turn to larger schemes, recalls former Cork City Council deputy chief executive and director of planning, Pat Ledwidge
The local authority offered help to property owners to bring dead space back to life “from the top of Shandon Street to the top of Barrack Street along the historic spine of the city”, he recalls.
“It ran down Shandon Street on the northside along North Main Street and South Main Street up to the top of Barrack Street on the southside. We succeeded in creating at least 60 apartments over shops and businesses,” he went on.
The storerooms that were converted then into apartments have proven highly popular with both Irish, but, more especially, European tenants, who arrived in the city later.
“Before you had an empty room over the shop, you filled it with stock and if you didn’t sell it for 40 years, you just had stock in there – then everything changed with tighter stock controls, then you had space and incentive to turn them into apartments and now the rooms are paying for themselves.
“We have separate access to the apartments and the majority of our tenants would be foreign – a lot would work with Apple Computers and some would be medical students who want to be near the Mercy Hospital but they are all very happy to live in the city centre.
“The street has benefited in that it seems to be a very safe place at night time so that is one thing but there’s an also a bit of spin-off in terms of the bars and cafes around the area and the groceries stores – it’s helped generate custom and business for them,” he told The Irish Times.
Data collected by Cork City Council in 2019 suggests that there still up to 260 buildings in the city where 423 upstairs floors are either vacant or under-utilised. Nearly half are in the city centre.
Mr Leader’s fellow North Main Street trader, Michael Creedon of Bradley’s Off-Licence and Foodstore passionately advocates city living, believing that it creates a cosmopolitan atmosphere.
“The people living over the shops tend to be young, international people – French, Spanish, Italians – it helps that they are coming from countries where overhead city centre living is the norm whereas it’s certainly a cultural thing with Irish people that they feel they have to have a picket fence and garden.
“But it adds a nice cosmopolitan feel to the street – I think people should be living in the city centre – if you go to any European city, you stand on the street and you look up and every building has people living in it – it brings life to the cities and that’s the future for cities like Cork,” he said.