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
In the North Lotts and Grand Canal Dock Draft Planning Scheme 2013, Dublin City Council outlined criteria that the area should fulfil as a strategic development zone (SDZ). “The SDZ strategy includes an emphasis on creative spaces,” it states. “Making space for artists and the production of artistic work will be central to reinforcing the area’s existing cultural assets and fostering a creative quarter . . . Particular consideration will be given to the promotion of artists’ work spaces, studios along secondary streets and vacant spaces as an interim use . . . There is also the potential for outdoor street-art exhibitions as a means of engaging with youth culture.”
The document is loaded with creative enthusiasm – the exact same enthusiasm Mabos exerts. As for engaging with youth culture, Smith runs Kings of Concrete, an alcohol-free street art, skateboarding, dance, music and community festival that has been going since 2006 with huge success. This year, Smith and the Mabos team had grand plans for the festival, but the council pulled funding, with little explanation.
Although we contacted several departments in the council and the fire brigade, it was difficult to get a cohesive answer.
Dick Gleeson is a city planner with the council. “Finding buildings for small groups of energetic people going into buildings to express themselves, we will look as favourably as we can, not to take a hard line,” he says. “We are one part of Dublin City Council, but the different segments of the council operate on different statutory obligations. A fire officer operates on risk, for example.”
Gleeson says he favours the idea of pilot areas, where an emerging cluster is identified, with a list of people who engage directly with the council, “and just see are there obvious issues that can be easily dealt with. We can act as a facilitator, getting direct dialogue going with those other sections who tend to take a more hard line.”
Gleeson says that given the period of flux, there is going to be “a learning curve”. Mabos’s activities, for example, seem in line with the aspirations outlined in the council’s documents. Asked if there is a contradiction with what is happening on the ground, Gleeson says: “I probably would accept that.”
The Chocolate Factory’s struggle
For Val Ruttledge, it has been “an excruciating uphill battle”. He came across the Williams & Woods building on Benburb Street in Dublin on his way to the social-welfare office. He was in business for 25 years but for the first time in his life found himself unemployed. Within six months, he came to a lease agreement with the landlord and set about transforming it into a mixed-use arts and creative space called the Chocolate Factory.
“At that time [Dublin City Council’s] rates office was saying anybody who was going into disused and closed-down buildings in the city, particularly if they establish them for creative purposes, they’d look favourably on them with the rates.” That positivity encouraged Ruttledge. He spent a year clearing out the building.
When he was approached by the Urban Farm project, the building received a lot of publicity. “One half of Dublin City Council was embracing what we were doing,” he says, referring to the council’s community section. But then difficulties began. “When I started, I was on €12,000 in rates. After that, they put it up to €28,000.”
He applied for planning in stages. “The place is very safe, up to date with fire regulations and everything else, but once you change the use, you have to get a fire cert.”
An initial fire cert fee costs €7,500, hiring a consultant costs €5,000, an architect charges about €2,000, and then he’d need to spend €15,000 to bring the building up to compliance level with the fire cert.
Two and a half months ago, Ruttledge was dealt enforcement, preventing the public from entering the building. The tenants are still there (he charges on average €250 a month for an artist’s studio), but he had to cancel summer events, a vital revenue stream.