Whatever happened to... the biggest shopping centre never built in Limerick?

The long-delayed ‘opera centre’ project has blighted the city’s CBD for a decade.

By Paul O'Donoghue Reporter, Fora

OVER THE PAST several months, Fora has taken a look at some of the more notable big-ticket projects that were floated during the Celtic Tiger period – or in the aftermath of its demise.

Most recently, we detailed the story behind the plans to build a huge shopping centre in the middle of Naas.

While locals are hopeful that the move could help revitalise the town’s suffering retail centre, the mostly completed centre has lain empty for years.

In this installment, we’ve moving to Ireland’s third-largest city to take a look at a similar project, but on a bigger scale.

The so-called ‘Limerick Opera Centre’ would be a major retail and commercial development with the potential to change the face of the city.

limerick-opera-house-1 A Limerick Opera Centre mock-up

What is it?

The original plan was that the Limerick Opera Centre would be a major retail development in the heart of the city, built on a 3.7-acre site opposite the Arthur’s Quay shopping centre and near the Cruise’s Street shopping area.

It was to span a huge 350,000 sq ft, with frontage on five streets and scope to house over 1,000 workers when completed.

The shopping centre was designed to include a major anchor tenant and over 30 new shops, bars and restaurants. It would have been the biggest shopping centre in Munster upon completion.

The project was to include a spectacular elevated walkway, encased in glass, that would link the new centre with various nearby shopping locations.

limerick opera house 2 A render of the proposed Opera Centre

The centre was to be dedicated to the memory of the world-renowned 19th-century soprano Catherine Hayes, a Limerick native – a connection which inspired the project’s name.

The site was assembled over many years by the Belfast-based Suneil Sharma, alongside property developer Sam Morrison, who then sold it on at the height of the boom.

When was it first suggested?

In 2003, Sharma started working with a local auctioneer to buy Limerick properties and assemble the site.

Sharma served as the chief executive of Regeneration Developments, the company behind the Limerick project. Regeneration announced plans to develop the site as a shopping centre in 2006 and got planning permission soon afterwards.

What happened?

The project was quickly given approval by Limerick city council, however several locals appealed it to An Bord Pleanála.

In the meantime, well-known developers Jerry O’Reilly, Terry Sweeney and David Courtney bought Regeneration for a reported sum of €110 million in early 2007.

In the years to come, this would be frequently held up as one of the most inflated deals of the boom years.

It was later revealed that the now-defunct Anglo Irish Bank, which worked with O’Reilly, Sweeney and Courtney, acquired a 50% stake in Regeneration in December 2007. It is not known how much it paid for the stake.

20/4/2011. Anglo Irish Bank Signs Dumped Anglo Irish bank backed the project
Source: /Photocall Ireland

An Bord Pleanála eventually granted planning permission for the project in the middle of 2009, however at that stage the recession was well and truly under way and a development as ambitious as the Opera Centre getting off the ground was never likely to happen.

The site, which takes up a big chunk of the city centre, lay idle for years. As with so many other boom-time projects, state bad-bank Nama wound up with control of the developer’s loans.

The site was put up for sale in 2011 for €12.5 million, a fraction of its original sale price, and acquired by Limerick City and County Council – which still owns the property.

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What’s the latest?

The local council looked at plans for what to do with the site and in 2015 said it was seeking expressions of interest for a new scheme that would feature a mix of office, retail, residential and educational development.

As well as plans to build a large shopping centre, the Irish Examiner reported in 2015 that the Revenue Commissioners offices would be moved to the new centre from the nearby Sarsfield House.

limerick credit flickr Luke Maurice Curley Limerick city
Source: Picasa

The state body is expected to move 900 staff to the new site, which will anchor the development. As well as that, the new plan also includes accommodation for 350 college students.

The project, which is estimated to cost between €120 million and €150 million to develop, forms the centrepiece of the Limerick 2030 renewal scheme.

While the site had planning permission for the huge shopping centre, the new development will feature more commercial development and less of an emphasis on shopping.

A spokesman for Limerick council told Fora that the local authority is planning to unveil new, detailed plans for the site in the next few weeks.

“There will be the same amount of development, but it will have more office space than retail,” he said.

“There will be some retail development, but it won’t be a retail hub. The Limerick 2030 regeneration plan has a plan for zones, and Arthur’s Quay is where a lot of the shopping will be.”

It is not known yet how the project will be funded, but no matter who’s behind it, locals will likely be hopeful of some progression at a site that has been a blight on the city for so long.

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