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
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.”
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.”