2023 will be remembered as the year in which Tullamore tried to reinvent itself: the Dream Team. By Fergal MacCabe

Last year Offaly County Council and Waterways Ireland appointed advisors to prepare regeneration plans for the town centre and for the Grand Canal Harbour at the heart of it. The consultants brief required ideas for the redevelopment of the key underused sites, proposals for linking them all within a coherent, livable, safe and attractive town centre whose crowning glory would be an accessible Harbour containing dramatic new buildings full of vibrant day and night-time attractions. A date in mid to late 2023 was set for the delivery of their proposals.

International Architects

The consultants for the Town Centre Regeneration Study are Brady Shipman Martin. Led by the experienced town planner Pauline Byrne, this well-known and respected firm of Dublin based landscape architects carried out an imaginative upgrading of the Lloyd Town Park some years ago.  However, to assist them with preparing the required civic design proposals for the key sites, BSM have brought in FaulknerBrowns a high powered and award-winning UK based firm who specialise in major renewal schemes all over the world. FaulknerBrowns have opened a Dublin office under the direction of the talented architect Niall Durney to design the Sports Ireland campus and also to redevelop the Guinness lands near Heuston Station- possibly the largest renewal project in Dublin at present time.

The consultants to the Grand Canal Harbour redevelopment are Grafton Architects who have won almost every architectural honour going for their exquisite buildings and who have recently received the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture. Their appointment is especially inspired given that one of the partners is a native of Tullamore who, despite building in Lima, Milan and Toulouse, has never had the opportunity to deliver a major work in her own hometown.

These two firms constitute the dream team that many progressive towns aspire to attract and the outcome of their involvement can only be innovative and exciting. They have been tasked with solving problems which the Council has sidestepped for many years but which are now firmly on the table due to a radical shift in Government policy favouring the renewal of town centres.

Thus, in terms of urban regeneration and architectural protection Tullamore will be going straight from High Babies to University while skipping Primary and Secondary. That is an exciting but very ambitious journey whose progress will be watched with critical interest in many quarters. 

Tullamore about the year 2000.

The Process

Inevitably controversial issues will have to be addressed and resolved:

*   The scale and impact of higher and denser buildings on adjoining properties and on the town generally.

*  The identification of key individual properties that may be inhibiting future development or linkages and their acquisition, by compulsory purchase. if necessary.

*   The control of development on certain streets in the interests of architectural conservation.

*   The role of historic buildings in renewal schemes.

*   Whether unimplemented planning permissions on Opportunity Sites should be acknowledged and built around or reassessed.

*  The interrelationship between the Town Centre and the Retail Core.

*   Whether the present quantum of surface parking in the town centre will be maintained, augmented or reduced.

* Whether seriously derelict buildings should be demolished and redeveloped or refurbished.

*  The future role of the Tullamore River.

* How the designation of Tullamore as a Decarbonisation Zone will be exploited.

The harbour in recent years

Great attention will be paid to the ongoing ‘Town Centre First’ plan for Clara which is presently acting as a pathfinder for the process. This has got off to a good start with well-presented position papers on the themes of Community, Heritage Tourism, Natural Infrastructure and Placemaking which are generating a debate and prompting the involvement of  local groups. Tullamore will have a lot to learn from the Clara experience, particularly in the formulation of well-directed submissions.

However, the next stage in which the consultants absorb these local submissions and decide whether or how to incorporate them into their draft plan can be tricky. Patently crazy proposals can’t be entertained, nor can the special pleadings of affected landowners but there has to be a sensitive response to the ideas and concerns of those who will have to live with the plan. If there is public buy-in it will eventually succeed but if it is a bridge too far it may fail.

For that reason it is of the utmost importance that the process be transparent and responsive and that the submissions of the public are fairly assessed and where relevant, genuinely inform the draft plan. Major surprises which were not discussed or revealed during the consultation process should not be sprung at the last minute as a fait accompli – as unhappily happened with the Tullamore Street Enhancement Scheme.

canal habour in the early 1970s

The Next Step

The process will soon begin and the participation of the public will be invited.

Unsurprisingly, local property interests will seek to maximise the potential of their holdings. Tullamore Chamber will of course keep a close eye to ensuring an environment in which the businesses of the town can expand and prosper. Social and charitable organisations will argue for a more equitable town and a ready and affordable supply of houses while home owners and residents associations will ask to remain as undisturbed as possible. Hopefully some local groupings will form to call for the protection of the architectural heritage of the town and argue in support of the admirable brief delivered to the architects. The mixture of these various opinions will start a creative and worthwhile debate about the future of Tullamore.

With eight underused or vacant Opportunity Sites, a still largely intact historic core and the wonderful amenities of the river, canal and harbour, Tullamore now has the opportunity and the potential to advance to the first division of urban design.

Waterways Ireland and the Council have chosen the very best team to make this happen and exciting times lie ahead.