A NEW central access road proposed for Kilkenny city which incorporates a cable-stayed bridge across the river Nore would unlock considerable city-centre redevelopment potential, including that of the former Smithwicks brewery site, a Bord Pleanála oral hearing into the scheme was told yesterday.
The scheme, which is being opposed by An Taisce and the Heritage Council among others, contains two distinct sections, an east-west link incorporating the new bridge over the Nore to the Castlecomer road and a north-south link connecting the city's western environs to the Freshford road.
The scheme is being promoted jointly by Kilkenny Borough and Kilkenny County councils.
Speaking at the opening of the planning hearing in the city yesterday, Michael Grace, a chartered town planner for the local authorities, said the aim of the road was not to aid through traffic in Kilkenny city, but to "unblock" congestion and ease traffic volumes on the city's two existing bridges.
It would, he said, provide for the redevelopment of key sites in the city-centre, such as the brewery, Bateman Quay and the mart site, which would prevent the development of "out-of-town" retail centres and the consequent potential loss of business to Carlow and Waterford.
The road would also make provision for planned residential development on the west side of the city while at the same time easing access to the city-centre health facilities and hospitals.
He told the hearing that the local authorities were very conscious of Kilkenny's many historic buildings and its medieval character. He said they were also conscious of Kilkenny's important and thriving retail centre. It was, he said, a "living city" with all the "expectations" of retail, health and educational facilities.
Mr Grace said that the status and maintenance of Kilkenny as a living city in tandem with its heritage had been recognised by the achievement of the Academy of Urbanism's Great Town Award.
"Kilkenny has only two bridges, excluding the new bridge on the ring road, which are John's Bridge and Green Bridge, and the narrow streets of the city are impacted by traffic congestion, reducing the amenity currently enjoyed by pedestrians" he told planning inspector Danny O'Connor.
Mr Grace said that the new bridge would be an aesthetic addition to the city, providing for "partial pedestrianisation" of John's Street and High Street. It would also make a local bus-based public transport system possible.
Among those listed as observers at the hearing are Diageo, owner of the Smithwicks brewery; the National Parks and Wildlife Service; the Construction Industry Federation; the Department of the Environment and local residents and a number of archaeologists and conservationists. An environmentalist, Peter Sweetman, told the inquiry that its work might be academic, as Ireland had recently been found to be in breach of EU rules on environmental impact assessments. He said that this scheme fell into that category.
The hearing was also addressed by Michael Starrett, chief executive of the Heritage Council. Mr Starrett said there were "characteristics that set Kilkenny apart and have been the foundation of the city's social, economic and environmental success to date".
He said the scheme was based on out-of-date traffic management thinking and on "road engineering solutions dating from the late 1970s" in an attempt to resolve economic, social and environmental issues which the city now faced.
"Times have moved on significantly in the intervening period. Across Europe, approaches to how the management of such issues in our medieval towns and cities are dealt with have been imaginative and realistic and cost-effective," he added.