The scene after the fire at the former Hermitage building in the Marist College grounds in Athlone in March 2018.

€15m Marist housing project moves a step forward

A 55-unit housing project on the grounds of the Marist College, Athlone looks set to progress after the Department issued approval in principle to Tuath Housing Association and Westmeath County Council for the development.

Four years on from a fire at Our Lady's Hermitage building on the grounds of the Marist College, it looks like 2022 could herald a step forward towards a new housing use for the historic premises as part of a €15.7 million investment.

Tuath, the housing agency, in conjunction with Westmeath County Council, is now poised to move forward with what it described as a “compatible living apartment scheme” on the grounds.

Minister of State Robert Troy said the department approval in principle in recent days for the 55 apartments on the Marist site is most welcome. What's planned is twelve one-bed and 16 two-bed units in the existing four-storey building, he explained, along with 27 two-bed units in a new three-storey block on-site.

“The benefit of this is we see existing buildings being brought back into life while complemented by some new builds. 55 units are urgently needed in Athlone. Unfortunately, day in, day out, I'm witnessing and dealing with people who are current tenants who see their house now being sold and face an uncertain future.

“55 units being provided by a housing body will ensure 55 new applicants will be awarded a permanent home, a building where they can call home for the duration of their life and that is so important on so many levels,” he remarked.

Minister Troy encouraged Tuath and Westmeath County Council to move forward “at pace” to bring their project to the construction phase because the homes are urgently needed.

He said this significant investment in Athlone, along with others, is a further testament to his Government's commitment to tackling the housing issue. The project is being funded under the Department's Capital Assistance Scheme.

Cathaoirleach of Westmeath County Council Cllr Frankie Keena also warmly welcomed the department approval, saying he has been working with the Marist Order with one objective to provide a centre for the elderly and those less able.

He said it was important that this objective was adhered to and that appropriate open space is included internally to cater for outside groups to visit and provide music, singing, play chess and other leisure pursuits.

He recalled visiting the McAuley Centre in Naas, an “exceptional facility” that welcomes and provides space for various community organisations and students to visit and integrate with the residents.

“I do feel there is now a need to meet all stakeholders such as Board of Management, parents, staff, and local residents to brief them on this proposal,” he urged.

In a statement on Tuesday afternoon last, Tuath said they are delighted to have received Stage 1 (Capital Appraisal) Approval for a total estimated project cost of €15.7m to redevelop the Marist site.

"The approved Stage 1 proposal provides for the design and development of a total of 55 apartments in a compatible living scheme (age-friendly and those with similar needs), made up of 12 no 1 bed apartments and 16 no 2 bed apartments within the existing 4 storey college building with a further 27 no. 2 bed apartments within a new three-storey block.

"The scheme mix and layout cannot be finalised until planning is approved, this is the next step in the development process," the housing body continued.

"The Design Team will commence working up detailed design and producing pre planning application drawings which will form part of the Stage 2 CAS funding application (to the Department). We hope that it will receive the same support as we received for Stage 1. Once Stage 2 approval is received we will make a Planning Application to Westmeath County Council. "

Tuath said back in 2020 that the project isearmarked for the elderly or those with similar needs and will involve the conversion of the existing Our Lady's Hermitage building which was damaged in a major fire in 2018 into housing units along with a new premises.

Documents at that stage also revealed that a communal outdoor area and a day services centre would be provided with a separate entrance from the neighbouring secondary school.

While the former school known as Our Lady's Hermitage had a number of uses since over the years, the protected structure had been vacant for a number of years before it was damaged by a major fire in March 2018.

Following that, the Marist Brothers got planning approval in early 2020 to repair the damage caused to the building, and this application also referred to a potential proposal by Tuath to convert the entire former boarding school into housing units.