TEN YEARS after ambitious plans to regenerate one of the country's most neglected urban blackspots were announced, the signs of progress are everywhere in Ballymun, Dublin.
Some are obvious: there is the rejuvenated main street with its glitzy steel and glass civic centre, swimming pool and health clinic.
Over on the newly-built plaza there is the farmers' market, stocked with organic blueberries, home-baked ciabatta and scented candles.
Where many of the blocks of drab flats used to be are newly-built two- or three-storey homes with playgrounds, neat gardens and manicured parklands. And then there are the less obvious signs, say locals, such as the rejuvenated sense of community pride, and a surge of interest in getting involved in local activities.
Some residents in older houses dating back to the 1970s are painting grey homes in brighter colours and tidying up unloved gardens. Others are rediscovering a sense of community which they have not experienced since moving here more than 30 years ago. "The patience of residents over the last decade is now being rewarded," says Ciarán Murray, managing director of Ballymun Regeneration. "Having lived in the middle of a virtual construction site, most can now enjoy new homes, parks and leisure facilities, as well as the main street with its new neighbourhood shops."
Almost 80 per cent of new homes are in place, while 24 of the 36 blocks of flats have been demolished. They estimate that in four years' time all the old flats will be gone and a total of 2,400 new homes will be occupied.
It has not all gone according to plan, though. The entire plan was supposed to have been completed last year, but the cost has ballooned to double its original estimate of €442 million and will take six years longer than planned.
The Comptroller and Auditor General, in a special report on the project, said some of the delays could have been lessened by better planning and risk management. However, Mr Murray says the bulk of extra cost has been due to inflation in the building sector, while the challenge of trying to regenerate an entire area while keeping the existing community in their old homes has posed unforeseen logistical problems. "Other developments on a par with this in the UK have taken 30 years to establish," he says. "This is a unique approach and it's working.
"The quality of the redevelopment here is something which the entire country can take great pride in."
But regeneration is more than just new houses. Social justice campaigners such as Fr Peter McVerry - who lives in the area - point out that drug and alcohol abuse mean that major social problems persist in the form of violence, crime and anti-social behaviour. The social mix in the neighbourhood is also a daunting challenge.
About 80 per cent of housing here is social or local authority housing, while the remainder is private. Officials hope they can reverse this figure over the coming years.
Ballymun Regeneration says the next phase of its plan is to focus on social and economic issues and to move the areas from a cycle of dependency to becoming a self-sustaining community in its own right.
Already new shops are arriving to the area and two hotels are operating successfully. Even bigger change is around the corner with the arrival of Ikea, just down the road - due to open next February and the new metro.
"They will be twin catalysts for developing further enterprise and investment," says Ronan King, Ballymun Regeneration's chairman. "In the past decade around 1,300 jobs have been created here, with over 6,000 potential jobs expected when the project is completed."
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