A prime opportunity in Ballina

An Cailín Rua

POTENTIAL Pearse Street in Ballina, where Mayo County Council has acquired a substantial site.

An Cailín Rua
Anne Marie Flynn

Last week marked a potentially significant day for Ballina town centre, as Tesco Ireland finally confirmed submission of a planning application for the redevelopment of their Ballina site. Why is a supermarket upgrade a big deal, might you ask?
Well, Ballina has been waiting quite a while. Over a decade, indeed. As far back as 2012, the then Ballina Town Council agreed to sell Tesco 2.35 acres of land for €3.4 million. Planning permission was subsequently sought by Tesco for a €20 million development, which never proceeded.
Mayo County Council had acquired ownership of the proposed site – including a small portion of private land by compulsory purchase order – which includes the old long-closed Ballina Mineral Water Company on Pearse Street, and a number of small housing units at the end of Pearse Street, which sadly, over the past decade have lain empty and neglected. The council did usefully repurpose one of those buildings as a tourism and events hub, a useful community space in which this writer is based daily.
Understandably, there has been frustration in recent years with the lack of progress, both with Tesco and Mayo County Council. Local Independent councillor Mark Duffy and Dara Calleary TD have been among those to make strong representations to Tesco to push the project on.
Originally, a whole new store had been mooted that would create 100 new jobs and potentially, an underground car park. While details of the new application are unknown at the time of writing, it is expected that Tesco will now not seek a new store, upgrading instead within its existing footprint, leaving Mayo County Council with a valuable piece of prime town centre land. Alongside, the redevelopment of the Military Barracks adjacent to Tesco as the Ballina Innovation Quarter has commenced, another significant project which will revitalise the town centre.
Reaction to the Tesco news has been muted – a case of seeing before believing? Instead, the conversation has been dominated by the issue of car parking, specifically the loss of spaces to facilitate the new Aldi, the Military Barracks and now Tesco. Reflective of a changing world, this debate has been topical and polarised in Ballina for some time, with a growing clamour for more pedestrianised and green spaces in the town centre.
Surveys in other Irish urban centres, including Ennis, there is an undeniable growing demand for better, healthier town centre experiences that prioritise people over cars and cultivate social interaction and greener transport options, increasing dwell time and retail spend. Fuel costs will accelerate this conversation.
In Ballina, while the loss of parking spaces is bemoaned by some, at least three affordable car parks on the edge of the town centre lie barely occupied daily. One thing the town does not lack is car parking space. Meanwhile, there is no publicly accessible town centre green space, even as Ballina proclaims its ambition to become Ireland’s Greenest Town.
Fumes and traffic noise dominate, pedestrians are squeezed, there is very little space to linger, cyclists get around with difficulty and accessibility is an afterthought.  
Last year in The Irish Times, David McWilliams made the salient point that brands now need to be good corporate citizens. Tesco will no doubt wish to be considered so in Ballina, even if belatedly, and so a positive, progressive and environmentally friendly contribution to the public realm as part of this development should surely be top of its agenda. The same principle should apply to the local authority which exists to serve the needs of the public.
Mayo County Council deserves high praise for its management of Ballina town centre over the past decade when retail parks hollowed out other towns. Its insistence that certain developments be confined to the town centre, combined with excellent public realm work has ensured that even in the worst days recession days, the heart of Ballina remained vibrant and attractive, despite high vacancy rates and the challenges facing retailers.
Just as Tesco has an obligation to make its development the best it can be for Ballina, Mayo County Council now has both a responsibility and a great opportunity to lead out again. Using imagination and creativity, it can put the surplus land acquired for this project to the best possible use to address dereliction, providing suitable housing, amenities and dedicated green space, adhering to modern, best practice town centre development principles, where the needs of people, not cars or car parks, come first.