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Friday, 17 June 2011

A Pretty Ghost Estate...


GHOSTS WITH A CHANCE: Not all of Ireland’s ghost estates are half built and hopeless. Some of them have charm, such as this scheme in rural Waterford...

THE IMAGES broadcast to the world of Ireland’s ghost estates invariably feature bleak unfinished construction sites under glowering skies, half-built shells of terraced housing or ugly apartment blocks, surrounded by rusting scaffolding, open manholes and wasteland.

However among the 2,800 plus empty estates that blight the country’s landscape are a handful of high-end developments – a strange mixture of vanity projects and architectural follies – that stand out not just for their extravagance but because (unlike the bulk of abandoned developments) they are complete, and are situated in stunning, if sometimes remote, locations.

Several have ocean views, others are in exclusive suburbs, most push boundaries in terms of design, but all remained unsold when originally launched. In this series we look at luxurious estates that are lying empty, and ask why they were ever built, what is likely to become of them and whether they are too good to be condemned to the wrecking ball.

St James Wood in the village of Stradbally, Co Waterford, is perhaps the most jaw-dropping example of a developer’s labour of love that has – so far at least – brought nothing but heartache.

Tucked away at the top of a hill leading up from the village green, it presents an incongruous sight: 15 chocolate-box thatched cottages arranged in a horseshoe-shaped development.

With their quaint “eyebrow” (dormer) windows and wicker-trellised porches, the cottages look as if they’ve been plucked from a rambling rose garden in the Cotswolds and slotted, somewhat unnaturally, into this small estate.

Despite the West Country feel, the thatched design is in fact in keeping with local tradition. On the way to nearby Stradbally Cove is the award-winning thatched Cove Cottage, and the beautiful Copper Coast drive (to which Stradbally is a gateway) is dotted with many more examples of traditional thatched houses.

Though a tad twee for some tastes, the olde-world charm of St James Wood met with a positive reaction when the cottages were launched on the market in 2006, and it was described in one media report as a fairytale development.

Certainly, no attention to detail was spared by developer Pat McCoy, who project-managed the site himself, having previously developed housing projects in the Sandycove, Dalkey and Killiney areas of Dublin. McCoy enlisted Irish wildflower specialists to landscape the gardens, some of which boasted fish ponds.

The large four-bed detached houses themselves were completed with all the requisite country-cottage touches – a half-door at the rear of the house, an Aga cooker and Belfast sink in the kitchen, lots of timber finishing – as well as all mod cons. Locals say that when the development was launched, it looked wonderful.

Five years on and it’s a different story. Now known locally as “the fat sheds”, all 15 cottages remain unsold and nature has made good inroads in returning the site to its original state. Weeds push up through broken cobbles, the meticulously planted gardens have run wild and the thatched roofs are showing signs of deterioration, with green moss sprouting here and there.

There is evidence too of petty vandalism – decking handrails and fences in the back gardens have been snapped and knocked down. The interiors of the cottages remain pristine, though, with several still dressed as showhouses.

So what went wrong? It depends on who you ask. McCoy says the cottages were launched as holiday homes. He decided to apply for tax-break status for the properties and this caused a delay of about four months.

He believes this is probably why the development “missed the market”. However it seems more plausible that the problem was the price, as the cottages started at an enormous €820,000.

Though the estate received a lot of coverage and a “reasonable” amount of enquiries, “it just petered out”, McCoy says. He even received some offers, but not at the level he was asking for.

An Englishman walking his dog on the village green tells us the developer would have had better luck if he had built half the number of cottages and “shaved off a few hundred grand”, adding that the back gardens are too small for the size of the houses. He believes the cottages were too expensive for anyone from the area to buy as homes.

His sister was interested in them, and was very impressed with the fit-out when she viewed one of the showhouses, but the price put her off.

Meanwhile the banter in the local pub is all about the cottages. It seems there is no detail about St James Wood – the history of the land it was built on, the merits of the different cottage designs, their possible uses – that hasn’t been thoroughly examined over a few pints.

Though one might expect people from the area to be annoyed about the empty estate plonked in their picturesque medieval village, the men in the pub take a reasonable view.

It’s not an eyesore because it’s tucked away out of sight up the hill, they explain. They’re more concerned it could devalue the properties around it.

Though Stradbally is in a tourist area, one man wonders why anyone would want to buy a holiday home now.

He wonders too whether the thatch might actually put people off the cottages. It is generally agreed, though, that the development looked lovely when it was properly landscaped and maintained.

What do they think will happen with them? “Come back in a few years,” one says. “They could be squats and you’d only get a few grand for them.” And if no-one wants them? “I’ll take ’em! I’ll put some cattle in ’em or goats to eat the weeds!”

A man who lives on the same street as the development is blunt in his advice.

“Knock ’em down,” he says with a rueful smile. He is surprised the developer completed the entire estate before selling any of the properties.

“Funny he didn’t just built one or two, sell them and then build some more,” he said.

McCoy told us he intends to relaunch the development soon. He said the site wasn’t maintained last year and that he has hired a contractor “to go in to clean the place up”. When we spoke with him he had not yet decided on pricing, but said “certainly prices are going to have to be reduced substantially”.

Interestingly the market for high-end properties in Stradbally has recently come back to life. After about a year and a half on the market, the Old Rectory (which is almost completely hidden, despite its central location beside the village green) sold to a Dublin buyer for less than €500,000.

The five-bedroom period property, which requires some work, had been on the market for €650,000 but sold once the price was dropped.

The auctioneer for the Old Rectory, John Shelley, says there is a demand for period property, and if the price is right you can get a buyer.

Another period property opposite the Old Rectory also sold recently after a similar length of time on the market.

Glenamara, a gorgeous five-bedroom Georgian house with coach-houses, stables and a walled garden, sold for about €600,000 (down from an original price of €800,000) to an English buyer. This suggests that McCoy will have to seriously slash his prices if he is to attract buyers.

One auctioneer believes the developer would be lucky to get €200,000 for each of the cottages.

For the time being, St James Wood remains something of an oddity in the village, a bizarre local point of interest.

On the day we visit, a Micra trundles slowly around the central green of the estate, its occupants staring out at the empty cottages. Two out-of-town bikers stopping for a break in the village decide to pop up to take a look at the strange development.

If this labour of love is to have a happy ending, its creator will have to accept the unpalatable new market realities.

Report by Caroline Madden - Photo by Patrick Brown - Irish Independent

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