"We need to see our capital as an asset"
After the boom, Dublin City Council is establishing planning principles for the next upturn, says its head, John Tierney
When John Tierney became the city manager, six years ago, Dublin was a very different place. The boom times, to quote the taoiseach of the day, were “getting even more boomier”, and the city was on the up, in more ways than one.
Shortly after starting the job, Tierney said the council was to take the lead in developing high-density housing and in identifying suitable areas for private-sector, high-rise development.
Housing estates were out, apartment complexes were in. There was talk of landmark buildings and high-rise “clusters”. Dilapidated council flats were soon to be regenerated using public-private partnerships (PPPs) with property developers, and major transport projects were to transform the city.
Circumstances surrounding the subsequent collapse of the construction industry, the failure of the housing regeneration PPPs and the shelving of the metro and the Dart interconnector have been well documented.
Tierney has faced criticism for having his head turned by developers and grand schemes. However, while current circumstances are not conducive to the return of cranes, the principles for development laid down in 2006 remain sound, he says.
“It is important, in planning for the future of the city, that we take a long-term view rather than following an extreme boom-bust approach in our policy for height,” he says.
In a low-rise city the prospect of skyscrapers dominating the streets grabbed attention, but it was never a real threat, he says. “There is no doubt that the issue of taller became a media storm and became a very polarised debate when it didn’t need to be, because the number of areas we were talking about for tall buildings is [confined to] locations such as Heuston and the Docklands.”
Confusion persists, he says, between the need to consolidate the city and the development of high rise. “Tall buildings and densification are not the same thing, and they should not be confused. A quality, more dense city is about making the best use of urban land to prevent sprawl, or ghost estates, in the future.”
The council did support some developments that now seem more than a little grandiose – Seán Dunne’s high-rise plan for the former Jurys and Berkeley Court hotels in Ballsbridge is a frequently cited case – but Tierney says the capital needs to show it can handle world-class development. “There’s no doubt that in relation to some developments, the opportunity to make a statement about the future of the city certainly was a consideration from the point of view of the ability to do world-class developments in Dublin.”
The need for any large-scale development seems hard to justify, but he says the Dublin region does not have much vacant space, either residential or commercial, and is especially lacking in large office blocks. Canny investors are already snapping up potential development sites, particularly disused or brownfield sites, he says, and now is the time to ensure the future of these sites is properly planned. That is a job not only for the council but for the National Asset Management Agency.
“I think Nama can play a very important role in ensuring the release of sites at the appropriate time and also ensuring coherent development on sites where there might have been a multiplicity of owners previously. They can also ensure that brownfield sites are prioritised.”
The council has an opportunity and an obligation to set down principles at a time when its planning department is not overburdened with applications.