Love it or loathe it, St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre’s days are numbered if the current owners – Davy Real Estate vehicle DTDL Ltd – get planning permission for its “rejuvenation”. Not only would its decorative facade and multifaceted glazed dome be dispensed with, but also most of the interior – notably its vast full-height atrium and see-though clock, by far the largest timepiece in Dublin.
Some of us are old enough to remember the diversity of the buildings that stood on this site, including Rice’s and Synott’s pubs as well as the legendary Dandelion Market that thrived as a “meanwhile use” in the 1970s and 1980s amid creeping dereliction as building after building in the seven-acre urban block was assembled by the Slazengers of Powerscourt and ultimately sold to British Land.
After the shopping centre first opened in November 1988, I likened its peculiar facade to “a Mississippi riverboat which had somehow become stranded on the edge of St Stephen’s Green without its paddlewheel”. I noted that the architect, James Toomey, intended to evoke Turner’s Great Palm House in the National Botanic Gardens, but he “couldn’t resist adding more and more royal icing to his confection”.
Nonetheless, this piece of architectural kitsch, occupying a pivotal position at the top of Grafton Street, quickly became a city centre landmark for Dubliners and tourists alike. Indeed, it is noteworthy that several ordinary citizens made submissions to Dublin City Council expressing their dismay that its distinctive facade and interior were to be replaced by a scheme that they described as “bland” and “generic”.
Designed by Dublin-based BKD Architects, the proposed “rejuvenation” of the shopping centre would retain the existing structural frame, rather than demolishing the lot and replacing it with a new building. It would strip off the latticed ironwork on the St Stephen’s Green frontage as well as the brickwork stretching along South King Street that mimics the facade of the Gaiety Theatre.
Clad in a light-coloured stone, the new building would look nothing like the existing one. Rather than having a dome to mark its entrance facing Grafton Street, it would have “a strong, simple geometric prism [made from] textured metal cladding with a bronze finish” on the corner, sandwiched between sharply angular flanking walls, that would offer “a variation of subtle shadows and reflection throughout the day”.
The entrance would lead into an internal “street”, cut diagonally into the block. Unlike the existing expansive atrium cluttered at ground level with kiosk-style retail units, the new “street” would be generally no more than 10 metres wide and nine metres high – lined on one side by larger shop units and, on the other, by cafés, bars and restaurants that would open out on to a pedestrianised South King Street.
This represents the only real “planning gain” from the proposed development, as it would introduce more animation to the street than the current arrangement, where ground-floor retail units are largely internalised. But for people entering the shopping centre, the sense of space of its atrium – at least when you look up – would be lost. The new atrium would be for office workers on the floors above.
And therein lies the rub. What’s proposed includes no less than six floors of offices on the St Stephen’s Green frontage, replacing part of the shopping centre’s multistorey car park and three floors of offices to the rear, above retained parking space for 550 cars (down from the current figure of 690). These additions would result in an eight-storey building, rising to nearly 42 metres – 11 metres taller than the existing one.
Setbacks are proposed for the top three or four office floors and these are to be clad in grey glazing, to reduce the visual impact on surrounding streets. But 35,000 sq. metres (376,740 sq. feet) of offices are proposed, which seems almost unbelievable given the huge volume of office space already built in Dublin and yet more under construction. With so many people now working from home, who is all of this for?
Amid doubts about the long-term future of “bricks-and-mortar” retail, the amount of shopping space in the new-look centre would actually be reduced to 19,000 sq. metres (204,500 sq. feet). The Dunnes Stores anchor, which is owned by the company itself, would be retained as would Boots and TK Maxx, but “higher order retail” outlets with larger footprints would replace many smaller shops, including the “kiosks”.
Scant consideration was given to the option of turning the upper levels of the shopping centre into residential or hotel use. This was dismissed on the basis that their large floor plates were more suitable for open-plan offices rather than apartments or hotel rooms. But at least retaining the reinforced concrete floors and structural frame of the building means saving much of its embodied carbon for the sake of the climate.
Photos submitted with Davy planning application show that the additional office floors would be visible from the north side of the Green, along what was once known as Beaux Walk and would also rise above the former Mercer’s Hospital’s landmark clock tower in views from South William Street. From there the rectilinear office floors would sit uneasily on top of its curved lower levels.
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The current project is not BKD’s first stab at reinventing the St Stephen’s Green shopping centre. Back in 2002, working with specialists from Arup, they proposed to replace its architectural kitsch with a new fretted glass skin held in place by stainless steel “spider” fixings. “The effect would be similar to a fine gauze applied to the facade”, giving the glass “a degree of solidity” and responding to different light conditions.
The proposal also included replacing the existing dome with a smaller glazed drum that looked somewhat lost peeking above a sharp-edged parapet of curved glass on the corner of the building. But the project, which had been commissioned by British Land, didn’t go any further than the drawing boards after Irish Life acquired a majority stake in the shopping centre and didn’t see any obvious benefit in proceeding with it.
The latest scheme is effectively an office development, with some retail at its lower levels and the architectural treatment – as well as the mean-spirited, profit-driven internal layout – falls well short of the exceptional quality that’s required given the prominence of its location. Sadly for Dublin, what was tentatively proposed by the same architects (and then shelved) two decades ago was far superior to the current proposal.
Dublin City Council’s planners have expressed “serious concerns” about aspects of the €100 million scheme, including the reduction in retail space and the addition of so many office floors, and they have requested a raft of further information, including a “comprehensive appraisal” of the existing building and “how it contributes to the character of the [designated] Conservation Area” of St Stephen’s Green.