27 May 2022

State planning watchdog raps bid to expand Tullamore's core retail zone to include new €20 million commercial complex

State planning watchdog raps bid to expand Tullamore's core retail zone

State planning watchdog says proposed €20m Riverside Centre is not in Tullamore 'retail core'

THOUGH it got the go-ahead from An Bord Pleanala in May, the State planning watchdog is still objecting to a proposed €20m commercial complex in Tullamore being included in the town's 'core' retail zone.

In a strongly worded submission to Offaly County Council, the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) calls on the local authority to “remove” the planned extension of the Tullamore retail zone out to Church Road.

The OPR says the proposed expansion “is not supported by the required evidence-based approach as part of an up to date Retail Strategy, and has the potential to undermine the vitality and vibrancy of the existing town centre”.

The area the council wishes to add to the town centre retail core is between Church Road and Riverside, with an entrance opposite the new Lidl store and another close to Tullamore College.

It is the location of the Riverside Centre retail, cinema and restaurant project proposed by local developer Grapemont, headed up by Tony Flanagan.

One planning expert has described the OPR's submission to the council as “an unusually strong and pointed  intervention”.

The submission was made by the regulator to the draft Offaly County Development Plan which is still being considered by councillors.

At a previous stage of the new development plan process, councillors gave the go-ahead for the addition of the Church Road site to the retail core, though its full adoption is still subject to final approval.

Originally, the retail core was confined to a portion of the town centre only, running from Kilbeggan Bridge to the roundabout at the top of High Street, and including part of Harbour Street and Church Street, all of Patrick Street, Main Street and O'Connor Square.

Planning authorities aim to confine so-called retail cores to specific town centre areas to prevent the further 'hollowing out' of the traditional shopping districts.

The draft development plan for Tullamore deviates from that by seeking to add part of the Tanyard and the land between Church Road and Riverside.

The proposed extended area does not include either the Dunnes Stores shopping centre on Church Road or the new Lidl store.

The development plan, which will govern planning in Offaly up to 2027, is required to define on a map the boundaries to the core shopping areas of a town.

The OPR says retail planning guidelines require that the strategy and details of the plan in relation to retailing, including the definition of the core retail area, must be evidence-based through supporting analysis and data.

Grapemont also lodged a submission with the council, saying that while it supports in principle to intention to revise the core area, it objects to the exact area chosen.

The developer points out that part of one of the anchor units for the Riverside complex it is planning is left out of the new core, an approach Grapemont says is “illogical”.

“It is not known whether this is a drafting error, but it is considered that should the plan be adopted on this basis, it will cause uncertainty for the proper planning and sustainable development of the area,” the Grapemont submission says.

The property developer also states it would be “sensible” to include the Dunnes Stores and Lidl sites in the retail core, because the development plan itself states that the area has been “delineated to identify clearly that part of a town centre which is primarily devoted to shopping”.

When it received the green light from planners, the decision was hailed as a move which should open the way for a major retailer to come to Tullamore after years of stagnation in the local market.

Tony Flanagan's company bought the site over four years ago and he drew up plans for a mixed-use development across five blocks up to three storeys high.

The project was granted permission by Offaly County Council but only after the local authority's chief executive backed it against the advice of her own senior planner.

It was put on hold in January 2020 pending the outcome of appeals to An Bord Pleanala and the board's investigations were then delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Flanagan said in May he was delighted with the Bord Pleanala decision and said it offered fresh hope for Tullamore as the economy clicks back into gear post-Covid.

“We look at it as a very, very positive result. We're leaving the pandemic and we hope this is an opportunity to bring footfall to Tullamore.”

The Riverside site covers 4.25ha and crucially, it includes a block large enough to accommodate one of the retail giants, should they wish to open in the Offaly county town.

“We will be able to offer a large footprint that we haven't been able to attract for the last few years,” said Mr Flanagan.

He indicated at the time that it was too early to speculate about the retailers who will occupy the shopping centre: “Now we will have an opportunity to engage with all the different stakeholders and determine when we can put a plan in place.

“There are a number of retailers out there that are in the category that we will be able to pursue now.”

The Bord Pleanala approval came just a day after a majority of Offaly councillors voted in favour of extending Tullamore's retail core to include the Riverside site.

Grapemont, Mr Flanagan's company, thanked the councillors in his submission to the council's latest draft of the development plan.

Support for the extension of the retail core was not unanimous but one of those in favour, Cllr Tony McCormack, Fianna Fail, said it would be “commercial suicide” not to include the site, which was formerly home to Coen's timber yard on Church Road.

“Observing the retail offering for the four large towns in our area, Tullamore, Athlone, Portlaoise and Mullingar, Tullamore has the poorest offering,” said Cllr McCormack.

He listed retail outlets which had already closed, noted how neighbouring towns had overtaken Tullamore and warned that Liffey Valley was planning a major expansion.

“If there is any desire to reverse this trend, limiting our retail core is the last thing we should be doing.”

Extending the core had the support of Tullamore Chamber and the majority of retailers in the town centre, said the Tullamore councillor. “They understand that if we do not increase the footfall in Tullamore a lot of businesses will find it hard to survive”.

The Fine Gael group on the council favoured a more limited expansion of the retail core, with Cllr Neil Feighery proposing that the Kilbride Plaza/Lynch's pub area be included, along with land both sides of Church Street and behind O'Connor Square, plus the Tanyard.

The Lynch's pub area is located in the extension currently proposed. Cllr Feighery said the fact that an area is outside the core did not preclude it from being considered for use by a large retailer and he warned against development which would “pull away the town centre, hollow it out and create a competitive element outside... with maybe free parking and rent incentives”.

The county development plan is still at draft stage and the extension of the retail core remains only a proposal in advance of the blueprint's final adoption, expected in September.

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