No space to turn: trying to harness Dublin’s disused buildings
Dublin City Council says it wants to help bring new life to dead space, but a labyrinthine regulatory process and disconnected departments make that difficult, and some of the city’s most creative spaces are now facing closure
Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly/ Irish Times Premedia
‘It got shut down.” This is a common statement in Dublin when it comes to alternative spaces for cultural use. But what does it mean? Dublin City Council has repeatedly expressed an interest in individuals and collectives bringing new life to dead space, yet many of the previously disused buildings that house creative endeavours typically have to deal with fragmented bureaucracy and strict regulations.
Mabos is one such example. This is a multi-purpose space housed in a former Raleigh bicycle factory at Grand Canal Dock in Dublin, and is run by Dave Smith and a creative collective.
“Creative education and experiential entertainment,” Smith says when asked what Mabos does. The building is beautiful inside: it features amazing art spray-painted on the walls, a skate ramp (Mabos has an all-female skateboarding club), sculptures, a gig room, upcycled furniture. It is bright, colourful and welcoming: a completely rejuvenated space.
New models have emerged in a nascent period of post-boom creativity, and these don’t necessarily fit in the rigid framework of planning regulations. “What you have here is a city council who have aspirations,” says Smith, “but no one is in a position to follow them through. Instead of a disposition of facilitation, it’s a disposition of policy and enforcement.”
Smith details the process. Many old buildings require a “change of use”. “Mixed use doesn’t really cover it; the Mabos model doesn’t really fit anywhere,” he says. If the council perceives there to be unauthorised development or change of use, enforcement officers engage and say the building will be “dealt enforcement”. Thus begins a game of bureaucratic cat and mouse, with organisations using the system against itself to buy time.
Applying for a Section 5 allows a person or organisation to query enforcement. That buys four or five weeks. If that gets a negative response, an appeal to An Bord Pleanála can buy another four weeks. If An Bord Pleanála backs the council, the next move is to apply to the council to retain current activity. If the council shoots down that application, there is the option of another appeal. And if that appeal draws a negative, you can apply for planning. Applying for planning from the get-go poses a risk, as the council can refuse it from the outset or impose stringent conditions that may be impossible to meet. If planning is refused, in goes the appeal to An Bord Pleanála. All of this costs thousands.
Then there is the issue of rates. While the council previously articulated its flexibility concerning rates for those taking over disused spaces for cultural use, that’s not the case for many. Mabos pays about €12,000 in rates.
Licensing is another issue. If an organisation charges into a space, it becomes subject to a licence (Mabos sells a membership bundle online and does not charge directly into events). That said, there’s no licence for bring-your-own-booze events in existence, so the Garda has informed Mabos that it needs a dance licence.
Fire regulations are crucial. Places of assembly or public gathering need a fire certificate. Fire officers can arrive at any time and shut a space down if they feel there is a danger. One of the regulations previously breached by Mabos was an unsupervised naked flame (a tealight in a candle holder). It costs a lot to be fully compliant and to receive a fire certificate – the fee to apply for a fire cert alone is €7,500, and although Mabos has four exits and a €2,000 fire alarm, it would cost somewhere between €50,000 and €100,000 to meet the regulations. Naturally you need insurance, so Mabos has a public-liability policy.
A good relationship with neighbours is important. Smith assessed sound levels and Mabos’s neighbours signed off on them. Then there is rent. Mabos leases from Bank of Scotland, CBRE is the property management company along with Green Property, and Grant Thornton is the receiver that controls the building. This means the city council doesn’t own the building, but it does own nearly all the decisions that can be made about it.