Irish Jewish Museum planning ruling needs answers
Locals in Dublin district of Portobello were not consulted over plans for demolition of properties and building of new museum
Walworth Road in Dublin, the location of the Jewish Museum and the site for the new and larger museum. Photograph: David Sleator
An Bord Pleanála’s recent decision to refuse permission for 10 tall wind turbines in Co Offaly will be an enormous encouragement to communities who oppose wind farm projects, and highlights the board’s capacity to put a spanner in the works.
But it doesn’t always work that way. A similarly positive outcome was anticipated by seven groups who appealed Dublin City Council’s decision to approve plans for an expanded Irish Jewish Museum in Portobello, including demolition of Ireland’s oldest synagogue.
The board’s decision to grant permission was a distressing outcome to an arduous nine-month campaign and three-day oral hearing, for which many of the appellants engaged specialist advisers on architectural conservation and hydrogeology – and commissioned a scale model showing the context.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny recently promised there would be “full and inclusive discussions with communities” on Eirgrid’s plans to expand the electricity transmission network. Sadly, the trustees of the Irish Jewish Museum had none with the Portobello community, while relying on the Taoiseach’s support for the project.
The proposed development comprises demolition of the synagogue located for almost a century in numbers 3 and 4 Walworth Road and three adjacent terraced houses, the construction of a two-storey museum, a basement requiring a six-metre excavation and facsimile 19th-century-style elevations.
Fairness and transparency
Nobody could deny the importance of the museum’s mission and the need for a suitable building to accommodate it. But the manner in which it secured the support of the Department of the Taoiseach must be made public, in the interests of fairness and transparency.
We know that former taoiseach Bertie Ahern requested the Office of Public Works to undertake the design of the museum up to statutory approval stage, while Kenny endorsed it as an “exciting project” in an undated letter, which can be read at jewishmuseum.ie.
Prior to the oral hearing, the Taoiseach was pressed to clarify whether his support for the expansion and modernisation of the museum could be interpreted as support for the development under appeal. All they got was a letter saying that neither he nor his department had “any bearing on the eventual outcome”.
Is it appropriate the OPW, a State body, expended public money to secure planning permission for a private development within a community that did not welcome it? Or that the scheme flies in the face of Government policy as expressed in the guidelines for planning authorities on architectural heritage protection?
Dublin City Council’s conservation officer noted that “the wholesale demolition of structures contributing to an overall historic streetscape would rarely be supported without exceptional circumstances being demonstrated by the applicant”, adding that re-use of historic buildings was the current policy.
cadism vs conservation
The conservation officer’s report noted
“facadism is not a concept that is supported as best conservation practice as it falsifies and removes the authenticity of the monuments”. Yet An Bord Pleanála’s decision endorses facadism, undermining the protection afforded to historic buildings worthy of conservation.
After the oral hearing ended and before An Bord Pleanála issued its decision, it was explained to me in Leinster House that the Government’s support was fostered by the Department of Foreign Affairs. Perhaps this was the “exceptional” circumstance the appellants failed to comprehend.
The irony is that the original artifact – the synagogue where the Jewish community worshipped and the houses where they lived, the authentic expression of the Jewish community in Portobello – would be obliterated to make way for a modern museum displaying historic artifacts.
The appeals board will not attract liability for its decision to grant permission if there is a structural failure in adjacent houses during excavation of the basement. However, the conditions it laid down do not require the Irish Jewish Museum to secure “non-negligence insurance”.
In view of our experience, planning legislation should be amended requiring party-wall agreements with adjoining neighbours together with non-negligence insurance for an agreed time period. It would also help if developers were required to have inclusive discussions with local communities.
Please do visit the Irish Jewish Museum lest it be demolished. It is a gem and a valuable part of our heritage, for Jews and Gentiles alike.
Michael Kelly is an architect who advised one group of appellants against the Irish Jewish Museum’s plans