A startling illustrated image circulated among some Irish users of Instagram last week. It depicted a heavy-set man in a chalk-striped business suit plunging a fork into his gaping mouth. Impaled on the fork was the shape of the county of Dublin. The businessman was eating the city.
The poster, designed by musician and artist Sinéad Kennedy, was for a protest march last Saturday from Smithfield to the offices of Dublin City Council (DCC). “Dublin is dying, save the Cobblestone, save Merchant’s Arch,” it implored, referencing two new hotels proposed near the city centre, one imperilling a pub and the other a row of independent shops.
On the day, hundreds of people showed up as protesters carried a coffin proclaiming the death of culture.
Yet tourism is also fighting to come back from the dead after the devastating impact of public health restrictions.
Protesters have for several years argued that a proliferation of new hotel projects in Dublin crowds out other vital development, such as housing and space for the arts. There were up to 80 proposed new Dublin hotels at various stages of planning before the pandemic, although not all were expected to be built.
Developers, State tourism officials and city planners respond that the city has a crippling shortage of hotel accommodation that constrains tourism and costs jobs. Abolishing hotel projects will not ensure the building of houses or cultural spaces, they say.
The arrival of Covid-19 paused the debate, as tourists vanished along with the financial backing for many hotel projects. Occupancy plunged as low as 10 per cent. But as the vaccination programme kicks in and tourism tentatively returns, so have the hotel developers and, in response, the protesters. The former think they are building for the prosperity of Dublin while the latter believe they are battling for its soul.
Young people can't afford to live in Dublin while the red carpet is being rolled out for developers
Officials at DCC say they are "caught in the middle" as they balance competing priorities. Meanwhile, the issue is relentlessly politicised by councillors.
“Young people can’t afford to live in Dublin while the red carpet is being rolled out for developers,” says Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin, an activist and People Before Profit member who helped organise Saturday’s march.
Owen Keegan, chief executive of DCC, says he is concerned about "the increasingly hostile public/political attitude to investment in hotels in Dublin, which has real implications for the future development of the tourism sector". It employs 65,000 in the city and so a lot is at stake.
Property agency Savills estimates that about 4,500 hotel rooms and 24 new hotels will be built in Dublin by the end of 2023. Few will stir as much controversy as those proposed for Merchant’s Arch in Temple Bar and in the environs of famed traditional music session pub the Cobblestone in Smithfield, Dublin 7.
The Merchant's Arch project received the planning green light from An Bord Pleanála three weeks ago, upholding a DCC decision but against the recommendation of a board inspector. Local pub owner Tom Doone now has permission to demolish four shops along one side of the 200-year-old archway to build a three-storey, nine-bedroom boutique hotel and restaurant. The archway would remain intact.
Local resident, author and former Irish Times environment editor Frank McDonald was among the objectors to the Merchant’s Arch project. He was also at last Saturday’s march. “The place was thronged. It indicates that people are not going to take this stuff lying down any more,” he says.
McDonald believes a boom in commercial building at a time when there is a chronic shortage of housing and cultural venues shows a “commodification” of Dublin city at the behest of developers, backed by international investors with a “wall of money”. He has written a new book about development in the city, A Little History of the Future of Dublin, which is out later this month.
He is critical of many planning decisions and also believes Dublin city’s development plan “means nothing” any more: “Every site in the city for the last 10 years was an opportunity to build housing. But so many hotels were built, then student housing, and none of it at an affordable price.”
People are “pissed off... because stuff is being inflicted on them”, McDonald argues, such as large-scale build-to-rent residential schemes rammed through fast-track planning procedures.
Protesters already were finding their post-pandemic voice when Bord Pleanála’s Merchant’s Arch decision came through. Then an application was lodged with DCC a few days later for a 114-bedroom hotel that would squeeze the Cobblestone, a spiritual home of traditional music in the city and a scruffy haven. The touch paper was lit again on the “hotels versus culture” debate.
The application was lodged by Marron Estates, owned by members of the Ireland and Britain-based Marron family, who have business interests on both sides of the Irish Sea in housebuilding, agriculture and civil engineering.
The proposal, which has yet to be considered by city planners, would not demolish the Cobblestone, which has traded for almost 35 years on a corner beside derelict buildings. But it would shrink it, swallowing its venue space, the rear and outside sections. The crooked remains of the pub would be in the shadow of a nine-storey hotel, calling into question its viability as an independent entity.
I have never been vocal on these types of issues before, but now I will not stop being vocal
“It is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Ó Ceannabháin. “There was massive energy at the protest. It felt empowering. This is a campaign I think we could win. People weren’t on the streets during the pandemic but that could change quite quickly, and the Cobblestone could be the spark.”
Ó Ceannabháin is a musician as well as an activist and has played at the venue, as has his father. He says the Cobblestone is “more than a pub”. A petition he set up has received almost 32,000 signatures at the time of writing, while an avalanche of objection letters has flowed in to DCC. “I have never been vocal on these types of issues before, but now I will not stop being vocal,” says one signatory.
But would Ó Ceannabháin and other protesters not accept that hotels bring employment and trade to a local area, and that there is no guarantee a cultural venue or housing would replace a hotel if it is blocked? Apart from the pub, the three adjacent buildings that form the hotel site have lain derelict since the 1990s.
“I am not against tourists. But who needs all these hotels? It isn’t a choice between the status quo and a nine-storey hotel,” Ó Ceannabháin replies.
Dublin City Council would not comment on the Cobblestone proposal for this article, as the planning application is ongoing. But in general terms, Keegan senses “danger” that the burgeoning wider opposition to hotels “will not solve the affordable housing shortage but it will constrain the development of the tourism sector in Dublin”.
An economist by training, Keegan appreciates the sector’s ability to create a wide variety of jobs at many skill levels, and he notes the economic multiplier effect tourism spending creates, as the cash washes through to different businesses and suppliers.
If developers are prevented from building hotels, they will build affordable housing instead. This is not necessarily the case
“There is real concern regarding the degree of political and public support for the tourism sector in Dublin,” says Keegan. “This is reflected in the political opposition to proposals to construct new hotels in the city council area, the introduction of restrictions on Airbnb and similar portals, and the recent controversy surrounding the decision to grant permission for a temporary change of use in respect of empty student accommodation to allow its use for tourist accommodation until May 2022.”
He argues there is a “widely held but simplistic view” that if developers are prevented from building hotels, they will build affordable housing instead. This is not necessarily the case, he suggests.
DCC's deputy chief executive, Richard Shakespeare, oversees the planning department. He says the council is guided by the principles of its development plan – a new draft plan is due to go on public display next month. The "core planning policy" for the central area of the city is to promote mixed uses of space. Tourism and hospitality are valued by planners as they help to "animate" an area. Fáilte Ireland, the State tourism body, has also repeatedly lobbied the council on hotel shortages.
The minute a hotel arrives, it is an anchor for so much more
Shakespeare says the council is concerned about protecting cultural spaces and the draft development plan is likely to contain provisions that large commercial planning applications must include space for “small scale performances”. But, again, he argues that a moratorium on hotels development, as sought by some councillors, will not necessarily mean land parcels are used for other purposes.
“Certain brownfield areas of the inner city have remained derelict and vacant for the past 20-30 years, until a hotel was built. It is [also] the case that certain cultural uses depend on low-value premises, and this is a real issue that the development plan does not have the power to address,” he says.
Pat McCann, the outgoing chief executive of Dalata, the country’s biggest hotel operator and a major developer in Dublin in recent years, says it is “amazing” what can happen in an inner city area such as Smithfield when a hotel is put into it.
“Other businesses start to mushroom around it. Where there is no hotel, activity on a street often shuts down in the evening. But a hotel promotes activity until much later and prevents a dark streetscape,” he says. “The minute a hotel arrives, it is an anchor for so much more.”
The Cobblestone protesters, meanwhile, are singing a different tune and seem prepared to dig in for a long fight.