Proposal for student area and region’s largest hotel

A massive new commercial and residential project encompassing housing, student accommodation and Athlone's biggest hotel could be on the cards for the town, the Westmeath Independent can reveal.

The news emerged on foot of the recent July meeting of Westmeath County Council when the monthly management report referred to a “Section 247 preplanning meeting” convened with the council in May in relation to a proposed Strategic Housing Development (SHD) made up of “73 dwelling units, 55 apartments, 297 student housing bedrooms and a 216-bedroom hotel” at Lissywollen South, Athlone.

The site on private land is understood to be close to the Garrycastle and Blackberry Lane area

Cathaoirleach of Westmeath County Council Cllr Frankie Keena asked for additional information on the pre-planning meeting for Lissywollen South project at the council meeting, stating it would be welcome to have student accommodation, a hotel and housing at this location as there is a big shortage of student accommodation in Athlone.

Cathaldus Hartin, senior planner with the council, replied that the proposed development, which includes a student apartment complex, is on a site adjacent to council land and he said the next stage of the SHD process will be “a tripartite meeting” with An Bord Pleanála. It was not revealed who the applicant is at this stage.

The Strategic Housing Development (SHD) process is a fast-track mechanism for large residential developments which allows applications to be lodged directly with An Bord Pleanála, bypassing the local planning process, where a decision is made within 12 weeks.

Controversial since its introduction, the government announced the termination and replacement of the SHD process recently which will restore decision-making to local authorities for large-scale residential projects. However, Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O'Brien has indicated that the changes will not come into force until autumn.

Mr Hartin told the meeting that all the indications in relation to changes to the planning laws indicate that new SHD applications can be accepted by local authorities “up to October of this year.”

Council Chief Executive Pat Gallagher had earlier told the meeting that the planning office in Westmeath County Council had recently taken on “an increased complement” of staff.

While it is in the “early stages”, Cllr Frankie Keena declared this latest proposal an “exciting venture” on Monday and a further extension to the recent SHD approved for the Brawny area which will see 576 housing units, including 176 social housing units developed by Alanna Roadbridge in conjunction with Westmeath County Council.

The first phase of that project, expected to start this year, will see the construction of a controversial link road through the development site. The stretch, described in the plans as 'Lissywollen Avenue', will be a new route connecting the Ballymahon Road roundabout with the Garrycastle roundabout.

“Student accommodation is badly needed to compliment Technological University (TU) status for Athlone, and obviously over 130 residential units would give great access to housing,” amidst a current shortage Cllr Frankie Keena said of the latest SHD plans for Lissywollen South. The addition of the hotel means it ticks three boxes for the town, he added.

“This proposed development is a further vote of confidence in Athlone as it strives towards Regional Growth Centre, and hopefully, it will act as a catalyst for further inward investment into the town,” he commented.

If this SHD project progresses, it would the third for Athlone following on from the Brawny approval (576 units), and another in Coosan made up of 426 homes on land close to Buccaneers rugby club. In all, the three would encompass over 1,400 units including the student accommodation.

In the Lissywollen South Framework Plan published in 2018 which set out a blueprint for the future development of the area, the local authority envisaged the development of a “student quarter” which would result in a “bustling and vibrant environment with interactive and social public open spaces” opening onto and overlooking the Old Rail Trail cycleway.

The plan, which runs up to 2024, sets out objectives to support “the provision of high-quality, professionally managed and purpose-built third-level student accommodation” and to promote Athlone as an “international student destination”.