A DECISION to contravene the city development plan to allow for an extension of the Freemasons’ Hall — into a section of Bishop Lucey Park — has been met with mixed views, with some branding it a “slap in the face” to those wanting to preserve city green space, and others arguing it is necessary to improve fire safety and access in the landmark building.
At a special Cork City Council meeting earlier this week, councillors approved a material contravention of the development plan by just one vote.
A vote was necessitated as the site is on land zoned as a public open space. Councillors voted 24-7 in favour, bringing the four-storey extension to the building on Tuckey St one step closer to becoming reality.
The proposed extension is to accommodate a new staircase and lift, to improve fire safety and universal access in the building. The decision to approve the contravention has been met with some criticism.
Plant scientist and UCC lecturer Eoin Lettice said he believes it marks “a completely retrograde step”.
“This decision allows for the piecemeal erosion of public green space in the city centre, for purposes which are of no real benefit for the public at large,” he told The Echo.
“The argument has been made that this is a relatively small proportion of the existing park. The truth is we cannot afford to lose any green space in our city centre.
“Based on World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, 79% of Cork city residents already do not have the basic requirements for access to green space,”
Dr Lettice said he feels the decision sets an “unwelcome precedent”, a point echoed by Labour councillor John Maher, who was one of the seven councillors to vote against the contravention.
“This is a bad precedent to set in a city like Cork, and opens the doors for further encroachments on green spaces,” Mr Maher said.
“What defence do we have now when other businesses or organisations come knocking for public land to make their buildings wider and larger?”
Solidarity councillor Fiona Ryan — who also voted against the contravention — said the decision is “a slap in the face to many people who are fighting for green spaces”.
“The council are arguing and the councillors who voted in favour of it are arguing that it’s only 1% of the land but actually if you look at the 3D imaging of what it’s going to be, it’s going to be far more than 1%.
“I think 1% would just be the actual extension out of the stairwell but when you actually look at the access ramp, it’s going to be something like five-plus percent.”
Details of the land disposal must first be agreed before the extension can be built.
Ms Ryan said she would encourage those with concerns about the proposed extension “to contact their local councillor to not go through with the property disposal despite the material contravention”.
Meanwhile, Fine Gael councillor in the city’s South Central ward Shane O’Callaghan said that while it is “not ideal to lose any public space”, he voted in favour to allow universal access to the building.
“The main reason I would have voted for it and I think, in fairness the main reason they’re proposing to build the extension, is to basically allow wheelchair access so people who have mobility issues can access what is a fantastic interior,” he said.
Independent councillor Paudie Dineen also said he voted in favour to improve fire safety and access issues.
Fianna Fáil councillor Seán Martin said that while he would “not normally support getting rid of green space” he felt “on balance” that “the greater good” could be served by supporting the extension.
Speaking about the loss of public green space, provincial librarian and archivist of Munster Freemasons, David J Butler, said the section of green space at Bishop Lucey Park is not a particularly fertile one.
“The immediate space behind our building is not a particularly fertile part of the land,” he said.
“It’s certainly an area that we’ve had an arborist and horticulturist look at as part of our submission and it was discovered that the birch trees that were planted there approximately 11 years ago had not matured in the style that one would expect, which has a positive, in that in their transplantation elsewhere for the duration of the building works, they will survive that transplantation because even though they have the years, they don’t have the growth that would be more severe on a more mature tree to uproot it and so forth.”
Mr Butler said that, over the last 14 years, the building has generally been used by non-masonic groups around 15 times annually, for events such as Heritage Day, Culture Night, the choral festival, and academic visits.
He said the society is “very open” towards having an increased amount of city events at the hall as part of the land disposal agreement.