Thomas Street deserves to be protected from destruction

Opinion: The Dublin street is downtrodden and a bit rough but beautiful in its own way

22/07/2014 PROPERTY  THOMAS Street61 and 62 Thomas Street 9this includes 61 a .Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

22/07/2014 PROPERTY THOMAS Street61 and 62 Thomas Street 9this includes 61 a .Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES


Thomas Street is a street that missed the boom. When I was a kid, the street – and the environs of the Liberties in Dublin – always seemed chaotic. Stalls were stacked high with toilet rolls, grannies twisted the plastic handles of candy-striped bags around their fingers while rooting out coins from their purses on the way into the butchers, black-market tobacco sellers called out brand names. It was dirty and a bit grim, but it had something the wide- boy builders had yet to ruin: soul. Thomas Street had life. It still does. If you walk down Thomas Street today, that buzz is still there. So it missed the boom, thank God. It’s one of the lucky ones. It could have been Cork Street – a street once populated by warehouses and flats and cottages and houses and shops and great brickwork and interesting rough-and- ready buildings. They’re gone now, because developers were given planning permission to build apartment blocks that have the aesthetic charm of correctional facilities, the functionality of underwater hairdryers, the longevity of an X Factor semifinalist and the soul of a discarded yogurt carton. That’s “progress”, apparently.

Not gentrified

But Thomas Street – somehow – was largely immune to the terrible building from which spree we’re still recovering. It’s a walkway of NCAD students, tourists on their way to the Guinness brewery, new Irish, old Irish. Rent on Thomas Street is still relatively cheap. It has one of the best bars in the country, the Thomas House. It has one of the best music venues in the country, Vicar Street. It has bakeries and cafes and shops and markets and artists’ studios and churches and derelict buildings and shut-down units and homes where people live above shops. It has retained a lot of old signage, unlike the plastic detritus that has destroyed so many Dublin shopfronts. Thomas Street is not gentrified, it’s just a living street. Imagine that.

Last week, Dublin City Council went against the advice of its acting senior executive planner, Claire Sheehan, who recommended against the demolition of two Georgian Houses in an architectural conservation area (ACA), in order to build a five-storey glass-fronted building.

Her recommendation, which had the support of the Dublin Civic Trust (DCT), was overruled following a review by the acting deputy city planner, John O’Hara.

Five years ago, when planning was granted for this building, Sheehan was on board. But like many recession-era developments, nothing had taken place yet, and planning permission was due to run out this year. Since then, Thomas Street has been classed as an ACA, and so Sheehan revised her initial granting of permission when the planning permission extension came up. Fair enough.

But the council is very good at the left hand giving and the right hand taking away. As reported by Olivia Kelly in The Irish Times last week, DCT conservation officer Graham Hickey said: “New development should respond in an intelligent way to the historic fine grain. This does not mean reproduction or pastiche design, but it should include creative interpretation of former plot divisions and retention of existing historic structures wherever possible.”

Oops, someone is using the words “intelligent” and “creative”. Doesn’t he know how our urban planning works?

Yes, 61 and 62 Thomas Street are in a semiderelict state. This is a real problem for many properties that have the potential to be beautiful yet have been let fall into decay. Boarded-up properties are plentiful in Dublin city centre on some of our most beautiful streets, most notably Henrietta Street, which in any other European capital would be a gem of a place. Just because something is in bits shouldn’t mean you destroy it.

In the book Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, Steven Johnson wrote about the organic self-organisation that urban systems undertake. Left to their own devices, and existing in an almost autonomous parallel system, streets grow and breathe and become entities with their own character and ecosystem.

It is often, in fact, the interventions in planning that disrupt urban areas and stem this unique evolution. Because we have been so bad at planning, our decisions to plonk unattractive retail units and apartment blocks in urban areas can create an artificial fork in the road for street life. The newness halts the authentic growth, and the character dissipates.

Sometimes these training wheels of planning interventions foster something better than what preceded them. But often, perhaps because most planners do not live in the areas they are structuring, there is little appreciation for the flavour of the place.

The thing about Thomas Street is that its character is not a consequence of economic prowess nor planning. Thomas Street is, on paper, a failure of all the things we seek do in the name of “progress”. It has not been “developed” or “revitalised” or “regenerated” . It is downtrodden but it is also beautiful in its own way. Sometimes “development” is in fact the opposite of what it promises. Give me a semiderelict Georgian house any day, over another disposable building.

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