It is now just over thirty years since this newspaper published a long-running series of articles under the heading, “Derelict Dublin”, that documented the decay and degradation of the inner city. At the time, in 1982, it was estimated that the amount of derelict land was equivalent to six times the size of St Stephen’s Green - including highly visible sites all along the Liffey Quays. Dublin’s situation was so desperate that one former lord mayor, the late Jim Mitchell, said parts of the inner city had “about as much character as a second-rate knacker’s yard”.
In 1986, the then Fine Gael-Labour coalition government introduced a range of urban renewal incentives in designated areas to kick-start development - even in a generic sense. “Never mind the quality, feel the width” was the motto then and, within a few years, developers were churning out office blocks, apartment buildings and even a petrol filling station - all fuelled by the availability of commercial rates relief, double-rent allowances and tax relief on capital investment. Many of the apartments were built without any design input by architects.
Dublin went on to experience its most significant urban renaissance since the late 18th century, gaining a wealth of new buildings and public spaces and, in the process, managed to reverse decades of inner city population decline. But it was inevitable that, once the property bubble burst, the city would be left with a significant legacy of unfinished business in the form of derelict sites, frequently acquired for a king’s ransom but never developed. Today, many of these sites are in the hands of public bodies or under the control of Nama, rather than developers.
It is not adequate for the Office of Public Works to say that it is holding prominently located sites along the Luas line at Church Street or at Military Road, opposite Heuston Station, for what it describes as “strategic purposes”. The Church Street site, in particular, is in a disgraceful state, surrounded by a flimsy hoarding and full of buddelia - the tell-tale sing of urban dereliction. And since nobody knows when this site might be redeveloped, surely it would make sense for it to be used in the meantime as a temporary public park, at relatively little expense?
Initiatives such as the “pop-up park” being planned for Dominick Street Lower should be encouraged. But Dublin City Council must guard against derelict sites being used as surface carparks providing cheap all-day parking for commuters, as this would contradict the Government’s Smarter Travel programme. If levies are to be imposed to serve as a disincentive for “hoarding” derelict land, some means must be found to include surface carparks in the net - otherwise such a use will be implicitly incentivised.