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How Silicon Docks is killing Dublin

Net Results: We need to talk about the kind of city we want before more tech firms arrive

Construction in the Grand Canal Basin of Dublin Docklands. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

As Dublin city centre becomes ever more devoted to accommodating the trophy buildings of Silicon Valley’s trophy companies, we really need to talk.

By “we”, I mean a far wider cross-section of Irish society. The people of Dublin, if you will. These voices need to be included in planning decisions that seem to prioritise adding ever more tech employers into a relatively confined geographic area in Dublin (the docklands and immediate environs, that would be you).

For two decades now, the usual posse of development agencies, ministers, city officials, developers (of land, not code) and the technology companies themselves have heavily weighted the scales towards the same outcome: more tech companies in Dublin city centre, in areas that displace the people who have lived in those neighbourhoods for generations.

This approach threatens to cement Dublin’s growing and unwanted reputation as one of Europe’s most costly cities, and one that will become less culturally and socially diverse as affordability swirls down the drain.

Let’s call it the San Francisco-fication of Dublin.

Social inequities

That beautiful California city has been transformed – and not in a good way – by an influx of tech companies, initially lured by low tax incentives (because the city administration of the time felt that San Francisco was losing out on the tech boom in the original Silicon Valley cities 40 miles to the south).

Even though San Francisco was already home to a growing segment of new media and tech start-up companies, which colonised old warehouses in the run down South of Market area, officials felt they wanted bigger, high growth (yet, little to no profit) companies such as Twitter. And so, in 2011, they cut a tax deal worth $70 million with around 10 companies.

With rents hitting $3,700 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, even techies are being priced out

On the plus side, the companies helped drive further renovation, and development on former industrial land near the bay. On the negative side, many now argue the companies never fulfilled promises to the existing communities, and that the deal wasn’t structured in a way that enabled the city to gauge compliance or to adequately protect area residents from gradual displacement. Social inequities festered.

Ever more companies have come in. Rents skyrocketed (up to 45 per cent) following a 120 per cent rise in computing sector employees between 2014 and 2017. Now, as the Guardian reported this week, even the tech employees who drove this mass gentrification don’t like what they have wrought. With rents hitting $3,700 a month for a one-bedroom apartment (making Dublin’s €1,169/month, about $1,320, seem a bargain), even techies are being priced out.

Many have moved across the bay to Oakland – where the same story of gentrification and displacement is being repeated. It’s not entirely due to the tech sector, but it has a very visible role and, ironically, it’s Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s company Square that is raising hackles, just as Twitter once did in San Francisco.

Housing

We have evidence that we are well on our way to duplicating this unacceptable scenario in Dublin. The non-stop expansion of the tech sector, especially of multinationals, is a major (though not the only) engine behind these changes. In comes yet another company, cornering another area of Dublin’s Docklands; up go pricey apartments to accommodate high-salaried employees.

Developers arrange deals to take social and affordable housing requirements off the table, trading them out to already-saturated communities at the edge of Dublin without adequate transport infrastructure. Then, in a pincer movement, this limited market is further squeezed by landlords who AirBnB their properties, as a new housing report this week argues. The dearth of new social housing in past decades adds further pressure.

Both the United Nations and the European Commission have blasted the inequities of the State’s housing policies and a failed system that seeks financial gain for the few (prominent among them, developers and vulture funds), rather than the building of sustainable communities.

Continuing to bring in big company developments to a city unable to house its existing population, without looking at best practice elsewhere and without working with communities, activists, and informed specialists, means we lurch ever closer to the unwanted example of San Francisco, a renowned city now struggling with problems greatly exacerbated by the poorly planned-for expansion of the tech sector.

We urgently need to take time for a whole society view of what kind of Dublin we are – or should be – aiming for before the towering cranes swing into place to erect yet another docklands glass and steel box to accommodate more tech employees.

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