Planning for Dublin's future proving to be a tall order

Sat, Aug 7, 2010, 01:00

Dublin city councillors and planners are at odds over the heights of buildings. But, well designed and in appropriate locations, tall buildings enhance the city

WHAT KIND of city do we want? That’s the fundamental question about Dublin City Council’s new development plan, and particularly the fears in some quarters that it could inaugurate an era of random high-rise schemes – however surreal that prospect might seem today, with so few tower cranes on the skyline.

It would be wrong to dismiss this as an academic issue. The new city plan will set the framework for development over the next six or seven years and, being optimistic, it’s likely that the economy – and, with it, the construction industry – will have recovered during that period. So we need to lay down some markers now.

As the planners themselves say in their introduction to the draft city plan: “Following 15 years of unprecedented growth, which has transformed the city, the recent economic downturn must be grasped as an opportunity to create a shared vision for a long-term recovery, for the benefit of the city, the region and the country.”

Tall buildings are seen as necessary not just to provide landmarks in a sprawling urban area, but also because they consume less land and help to “densify” the city. Ordinary people might have their doubts about going in this direction, but the planners say there is a compelling case for skyscrapers of sorts, particularly near transport “hubs”.

The problem is that their high-rise vision for certain parts of Dublin is not generally shared by city councillors. That explains why the council has decided that a Local Area Plan (Lap) would have to be drawn up, and adopted, before any planning applications for tall buildings (above 28 metres) could be entertained anywhere in the city.

There are divided views on the issue, and apocalyptic warnings have been issued on both sides of the argument. The Construction Industry Federation believes the proposed restriction would drive investment out of Ireland, while An Taisce says that even a few badly sited towers would irrevocably damage Dublin’s character.

The draft city plan “acknowledges the intrinsic quality of Dublin as a low-rise city and considers that it should predominantly remain so”. But it goes on to say that “the merit of taller or landmark buildings in a very limited number of locations for economic and identity reasons appropriate for a capital city is also recognised”.

Chief planning officer Dick Gleeson says: “We’re only talking about half a dozen locations in the outer city area where there would be some height – the north fringe [Clonshaugh, for example], Ballymun, Pelletstown, Park West and the Naas Road – with taller buildings of eight to 16 storeys to define character and act as landmarks.”

On the much more sensitive issue of the inner city, he says councillors have agreed on a “prevailing upper limit” of seven storeys for offices and six storeys for apartments. But buildings of 16 to 24 storeys could be permitted in certain areas, such as around Heuston, Connolly and Tara Street Dart and railway stations, the docklands and Grangegorman.

The upper limit would be “defined by their appropriateness”, Gleeson says – in other words, the architecture and urban design qualities of any tall building would have to be exceptional. And, of course, it would be guided by Laps, which are to be prepared by “pulling together a big team” of architects and planners.

“In their very different contexts, the Laps will deliver bottom lines, because there is a need for clarity on issues like height: in a very simple way, people want to know for sure what a place is going to be like. And we can’t forget the requirements of making good urban spaces, to deliver liveability for the city over time,” Gleeson says.

But height isn’t just about tall, elegant “point blocks”; it also applies to any building that’s significantly higher than its neighbours. And in Dublin’s case, even in the inner city, many of the houses are only two storeys high; the difference in scale between them and the newer six-storey apartment block on Blackhall Place is quite striking.

Overall, as the draft city plan says, the policy is “to ensure that all proposals for mid-rise and taller buildings make a positive contribution to the urban character of the city [and] demonstrate sensitivity to the historic city centre, the River Liffey and quays, Trinity College, the cathedrals, Dublin Castle, the historic squares and the city canals”.

There is no doubt, however, that a number of senior planners are in favour of high-rise. Had they been able to, they would have given the go ahead for Seán Dunne’s plans to build a 37-storey tower on the Jurys/Berkeley Court site in Ballsbridge; former city architect Jim Barrett was particularly enthusiastic about it.

What stood in the way of that audacious scheme was the current city plan, which made no explicit provision for high-rise developments in Ballsbridge, or anywhere else. In the end, it was rejected by An Bord Pleanála, which said it would constitute “gross over-development” of the site – even without the 37-storey tower.

An inspector appointed by Minister for the Environment John Gormley is currently investigating a detailed complaint by An Taisce that the planners “acted systematically in disregarding” the city plan by “encouraging landowners and developers to lodge planning applications” for high-rise buildings in breach of its provisions.

Dublin city manager John Tierney rejects this, saying An Taisce’s dossier contains “substantial inaccuracies, misrepresentations and unsubstantiated allegations against this planning authority and its executives in the carrying out of our statutory duties”.

THIS WEEK, AN TAISCE and billionaire financier Dermot Desmond lost their appeals against plans by Seán Dunne to replace Hume House, next door to the former Jurys Hotel in Ballsbridge, with a far denser development of offices – which will stand nine metres (30 feet) taller than the existing 1960s block – bought for €130 million during the boom.

Dunne will not be in any rush to redevelop the site, given the high level of vacancy in Dublin’s depressed office market, with numerous newly built blocks lying vacant. These include several high-quality buildings in “prime” areas of the city, such as Nassau Street, and no tenants likely to materialise any time soon.

In the background lurks Nama and the staggeringly large pile of toxic debts it now administers. The agency has a statutory duty to get the best return for taxpayers, but does this mean that it will be seeking to maximise the value of every site? Or should it be taking into account wider issues, such as urban design and sustainable development?

The truth is that nobody outside Nama really knows – and Nama itself isn’t saying.

If it was to go for broke by getting its developer “clients” to put in for planning permission for high-rise schemes all over the place, purely as a land valuation exercise, the city planners would not be pleased; some dialogue in this area is clearly desirable.

Despite several serious plans during the boom to reach for the sky (the U2 Tower in the docklands, Watchtower, etc), Liberty Hall still holds the title of Dublin’s tallest building at just short of 60 metres – eclipsed not only by Cork County Hall (67 metres), but also the Elysian tower in Cork (71 metres) and Belfast’s Windsor House (80 metres), City Hospital (74 metres) and Hilton Hotel (63 metres).

If Siptu gets planning permission and can find the money to realise its vaulting ambitions, Liberty Hall will be replaced by a much taller (and bulkier) tower, rising to a height of 84 metres.

Architects Gilroy McMahon are to supply a raft of further information on their scheme by the end of this month – and we’ll see what happens after that.



Lisburn Road, Belfast

18 storeys

74 metres high

Iser Architects, 1986.

With its yellow (or orange?) vertical ribs, rising above a mish-mash at the lower levels, this incredible concrete hulk dominates Belfast’s skyline – and not in a good way; it is one of the worst advertisements anywhere for high-rise construction.


Dame Street, Dublin

Nine storeys

45 metres high

Sam Stephenson Associates, 1978

Immensely controversial in its time for being nearly 30 feet higher than it should have been, this is a structural tour de force, with all of the floors suspended from its roof. The plaza in front may be a bonus, but it’s always windy there.


Grand Canal Dock, Dublin

16 storeys

60 metres high

OMP Architects, 2010

Designed as a diagonal counterpoint to Alto Vetro and commissioned by the same developers (Treasury Holdings), this new building – currently in the course of completion – shows how bulky high-rise can be; it lacks any sense of “slenderness ratio”.


Eden Quay, Dublin

17 storeys

59 metres high.

Desmond Rea O’Kelly, 1965

The new headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (now Siptu) was an icon for the emergence of modern Ireland. It has not been looking its best since the windows were rendered opaque and its mosaic cladding was covered by mastic.


Western Road, Cork

17 storeys

67 metres high

Shay Cleary Architects, 2006

Built in 1968 and deliberately designed to pip Liberty Hall, the concrete façade became seriously eroded and was replaced by louvred glass cladding, with natural ventilation. Flanked by a colonnaded pavilion and new library, it looks better than ever.


Grand Canal Dock, Dublin

16 storeys

52 metres high

Shay Cleary Architects, 2008

Razor-sharp residential tower in glass and steel, it is best seen from the side and really cuts a dash in views from Grand Canal Square and Forbes Street. The randomly-arranged balconies on its front and rear elevations are somewhat jarring.