An artist’s impression of what the overall development would look like.

Planning blow as multi-million euro Athlone project refused

An Bord Pleanála has recently upheld Westmeath County Council's decision to turn down a plan for a multi-million euro commercial development at the site known locally as the Diskin Centre in Golden Island in Athlone, saying it would be “visually unsatisfactory and inappropriate” in such a prominent location at the edge of the town centre.

Applicant Tiane Ltd failed to get the council's backing back in July for the project encompassing a range of retail outlets selling bulky and non-bulky goods, a cafe with a public plaza, offices and convenience supermarket, at the junction of Golden Island and Carrickobrien Road.

It covered the demolition of the existing retail warehouse units to the north of the site to provide almost 11,000 square metres of commercial floorspace in four separate blocks, predominantly two storeys ranging from six metres to eleven metres high.

An existing commercial development to the east of the site opposite Aldi would be retained as part of the plans.

Back in July, the local authority ruled against it, listing six different reasons for knocking it back, chief among them was its view that proposed development by reason of “its predominant retail use (87%) on a prominent and strategically located site within Athlone and zoned ‘mixed-use’” did not provide for an appropriate mix of uses which will allow for the sustainable and compact growth of Athlone.

Further reasons for refusal centred on the design, layout and arrangement of the site and that it would “detrimentally impact on the vitality and vibrancy of this town centre location” and complaints that there was too much convenience shopping provided for. They were also unhappy with how many car journeys the project would result in, and failed to see the justification for the provision of retail warehousing.

During the local planning process, the plans had attracted several submissions including from other retailers including Tesco, along with International Investment ICAV and AGL Arcadia Management Company Ltd.

Tiane Ltd later appealed the refusal to An Bord Pleanála hoping to overturn that verdict to allow the project proceed.

In the grounds for appeal cited by An Bord Pleanála in the inspector's report, the backers contended that the plan represented “an appropriate mix of uses for the area” and it “is not an out of town retail park but an edge of centre development” which would “replace outdated low quality and low value retail warehousing buildings that are within 400m walking distance of the retail core and regenerate an area which is acknowledged as unattractive”.

In terms of retail warehousing, the developers pointed out that site already comprises an existing retail warehousing development (4,600sqm) so there would be only “a minimal increase in bulky retail warehouse provision” at the site (4,660sqm).

They also judged the “quantum of convenience floorspace proposed” (3,293sqm) was not excessive, and that the project would “enhance the built and visual amenity” at the location.

On February 3 last, An Bord Pleanála sided with the council's decision by refusing approval on two main grounds.

It considered that the proposed development would be contrary to the retail policies as set out in the development plan and "would negatively impact on the vitality of retail development in the town centre of Athlone” taking account of the location, the mixed-use zoning and the amount of convenience shopping and car parking proposed.

In addition, the board's order decided that “by reason of its generic form, dominant retail use and standardised design and layout” the proposed development would be “visually unsatisfactory and inappropriate in the context of the prominent location of the site” on the edge of the town centre.

The proposed development would also conflict with the current Athlone Town Development Plan and its objectives to require new retail development “to contribute positively to the public realm and place-making,” according to An Bord Pleanála, and with the National Planning Framework's aim to “regenerate towns as environmental assets”.