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


‘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.

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.

Ruttledge has felt like giving up at times, but €300,000 has already gone into the building. “The law is the law and I’m happy to abide by it, but there’s not enough latitude, saying ‘here’s what you should do, and I’ll give you time to do that’, instead of rattling the hell out of you.”

He has a good relationship with parts of the council and describes the enforcement officers as “gentlemen”. But it’s tough now. “Instead of saying ‘close down guys, get out of town’, just talk to us. At least come in and tell us where we’re going wrong and say ‘this is what you need to do, get that sorted by this time’, instead of firing in torpedoes. I say my prayers every day and think: just keep going.”

Andrew Douglas runs the Urban Farm on the Chocolate Factory’s roof. “It’s at a standstill,” he says. “It’s closed to everybody bar myself. The restrictions imposed by the fire officer are that no groups go up on the roof itself, and we are also under spot checks by the council.” He raised more than €5,000 on crowd-funding website FundIt to start the project, and needs around €20,000 to reopen it next year.

“If the Chocolate Factory fails, it’ll be disastrous, because this is a flagship grassroots creative building. If it does fail, it will be a discouragement to people looking to take over buildings. This takes money, time, energy, blood, sweat and tears. Certainly there needs to be some sort of common ground that everybody can meet on, not just where the council comes along with warning signs in their eyes. There’s so many blank spaces around this city, and the council says they’re encouraging people to take over these sites. But they obviously don’t listen to their own words because they came in to us and put on the biggest restrictions that they could.”

As regards the cat-and-mouse game, Douglas says: “I used to say the worst thing about the council is different departments don’t talk to each other. And the best thing about the council is different departments don’t talk to each other.”

Positive signs
There is a positive side. On August 22nd, an event called “Dublin’s Independent Spaces: where to from here?” will take place at Loom Studios on Upper Dominick Street. Mabos, the Chocolate Factory and the Urban Farm organisers all talk about a learning process and its potential. Later this month, the collective Upstart is launching a pop-up park in the north inner city.

Peter O’Brien, a founding member of Upstart, says “it’s all about relationships. When I call someone in the council now, they get back to me.” He says there is a growing progressive element within Dublin City Council prepared to go the extra mile to make things happen. Dublin City Council also has a vacant-space initiative acting as a go-between between landlords of vacant spaces and prospective tenants.

No one perceives the council to be the enemy. O’Brien says it has been “incredibly helpful” throughout the process, and that an increased number of independent projects and the publicity they garner is partly responsible for this. “It’s coming from information, people realising in the council that there’s all these people trying to do things and we’ve got to get on their side.”

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