The Jewel in the Crown
We have all seen the recent discussion on Newry’s regeneration, in particular the keystone projects and their impact upon matters such as parking. I moved back to the city last year and realised the time gave me a new appreciation for the built artefacts, from this I offer some thoughts on the proposals, the existing and how the two could integrate.
Clearly Newry has a lack of quality public space, accommodating to all and reflective of Newry’s unique, historic connection to its waterways. While the desire for a city park on the scale proposed in the Albert Basin should be encouraged, it is a long term scheme for public space within the city. There are faster, cheaper and smaller scale options available to begin addressing the lack of room to breathe in the city. In my mind these can be found via a closer look and understanding of what the city has to offer. There are any number of places that would benefit from a careful touch, collectively these small projects will deliver a noticeable and realistic improvement to the experience of the city. Which, as retail has moved online, people will only visit and live in cities which offer a pleasant experience.
With this in mind I look to the new theatre site next to the City Hall, a place with potential to become a properly urban space within the city, rather than a busy road route. This complex piece of city could become a public place, with a character unique to Newry, the rival of any on the Island. This is due largely to its location within the city and the retained pieces of the built fabric enclosing the space. Chief among these is the strong, object of the City Hall, spanning the river and commanding the wider streets and river as they flow past the beautiful curved facades of Trevor Hill. These are supported by the low stone walls and bridges, framing the river in a shrine like manner. All this is contained and supported by the retained city structure, in particular the buildings of McCarten Bro’s and Finegan & Son. This site is integral to the townscape due to it being something of a junction within the city. Geographically, at the point where the river and canal part to form sugar island. Urbanistically, it sits at the edge of the tighter, historic city centre, here the streets widen thanks to the presence of the river, becoming a natural place for breath. Together this ensemble has the potential and scale to become square for the city, akin to those of the great Flemish city of Ghent.
Despite the potential, the site is choking under heavy handed roads infrastructure, like most of the city. The area is treated as a car park, rather than a lively river fronted square overlooked by the city hall. The existing issues are not solely car related, some are easily solved and the results would be of great benefit to the region as a whole. We all know the issue with the corner between the City Hall and Arts Centre; a forgotten street, dead ended by a gate. If this gate was opened, we could integrate the centre of the city with the Greenway and Towpath, creating a safe (car free) link between the towpath and greenway, without resorting to major traffic re routing. This would give Newry a place within these great landscape elements, the increase in visitor would benefit the city economically and socially by activating the (hopefully new) public spaces of the city.
The theatre is ideal to being addressing these issues as the first public building in the city for years. The scheme (to its credit) recognises the value in creating a public space on the river to the rear of the City Hall, though this would be marooned by the unnecessary glazed link between the old and new. This glazing eliminates the possibility of any future car free greenway / towpath link, or the potential for this new public space to have a meaningful and useful connection the city.
Removing this glazed link from the scheme, would result in the loss of very little critical accommodation to the theatre. The result would be of great benefit to the city’s public space and funds, not least in thanks to the savings in glazing.
Important also, would be the continuance of the City Halls relationship with the built fabric of the city. This building is used by all of us, it should sit somewhere more welcoming and civic than a car park. By opening up the route along side and activating the square in front, we have a chance to give the City Hall the respect deserved.