How to build a better Dublin
Public transport has always been Dublin’s Achilles heel, since the old tram network was scrapped in 1949 on the basis that buses would be more flexible. That was true for a while, but over time the buses became snarled in traffic as the numbers of cars grew inexorably, and it wasn’t until 1981 that the first two bus lanes were introduced.
By then the bicycles that once filled the city’s streets were forgotten, the number of people cycling to work declined year after year and the authorities concentrated on building a vast road network that ultimately included the M50, the Dublin Port Tunnel and motorways to the capital from nearly every point on the compass.
In the boom years these new roads facilitated suburban sprawl, with bits of Dublin leapfrogging all over Leinster and even in parts of Ulster as a result of the unplanned surge of commuterland within a 100km radius of the city.
Getting to grips with the consequences has proven very problematic. Uncontrolled sprawl means far too many people are heavily reliant on their cars, even to go to a shop or drop children to school. Levels of obesity are rising, and neither cycling nor walking is a safe option on major roads, especially for children.
During the boom the dominant thesis among Dublin’s planners was that the city needed “iconic” high-rise buildings, to become like other cities. This was inspired by the notion of the American pop sociologist Richard Florida that cities must cater for a “creative class” of highly mobile young professionals rather than by any real understanding of Dublin.
Even though Google, Facebook and Microsoft – the type of companies that would employ “high bohemians”, in Florida’s term – were already here, the planners repeatedly approved high-rise schemes that would have changed the city’s skyline profoundly if they had been built. Most of these plans lie in tatters, including the U2 Tower at Britain Quay and Harry Crosbie’s Watchtower, as well as Seán Dunne’s scheme for a “diamond-cut” 37-storey tower on the Jurys Hotel site in Ballsbridge.
A reinforced high-rise cluster around George’s Quay and Tara Street, as envisaged in the current Dublin city development plan, has yet to materialise; the same goes for a plan to replace Hawkins House, the dilapidated 1960s horror occupied by the Department of Health, with a building more respectful of the surrounding streets.
Also pigeonholed for the moment are plans for two big shopping centres off O’Connell Street: Dublin Central, a huge scheme by Chartered Land on the Carlton cinema site that stretches westwards to Moore Street; and the Northern Quarter planned by Richard Nesbitt, the chairman of Arnotts, for a site extending eastwards from its department store.
Closing shops, shelving plans
The fragile state of retailing is a worry. Lower levels of consumer demand, combined with the Government’s refusal even to tweak standard upward-only rent reviews for fear of further offending pension funds, have led to the closure of numerous shops, most recently Kennedy McSharry on Nassau Street, and left many others on a knife-edge.
There’s very little to show for the Digital Hub that was supposed to bring new life to the area around Thomas Street. There, too, the plans by developers were so overblown that they even included a Manhattan-style high-rise cluster, with a 56-storey tower as its centrepiece. The credit crunch and property crash saw them all off.
Realisation of an ambitious local area plan for the Phibsborough area is also stalled because of the additional complication of uncertainty about whether ill-fated plans to build, on a remote site in north Co Dublin, a prison to replace Mountjoy will ever materialise. There was also the fiasco over the gargantuan children’s hospital at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, now earmarked for Dublin 8.