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Johnny Ronan replies to Frank McDonald: Tall buildings must be part of Dublin’s future

Waterfront South Central is a solution – not ‘two fingers’ – to Dublin’s problems

Dublin City Council’s lasting contribution to the Dublin docklands has been a mismanaged transition from decay to banality – a grey city quarter by the grey suits, celebrated and upheld by dusty armchair critics like Frank McDonald.

The real “two fingers” to Dublin – to quote McDonald’s op-ed of last weekend – is the out-of-touch, not-fit-for-purpose planning scheme that governs the (under)development of this “stump city”. Like McDonald, the Docklands Strategic Development Zone is a relic and deserves to be left in the past.

Why can meaningful height be part of the solution for other leading European cities such as Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Cork – but not Dublin?

Height – meaningful height – must be part of the future of our cities. It is time to wake up, and grow up. We are in the teeth of a severe housing crisis. Young people need homes. Workers are done with exhausting commutes. Dublin is competing on a world stage for jobs from the biggest and best multinationals. Continued urban sprawl and a chronic housing shortage hinder us. Height helps. Simple.

We should all be in agreement about the importance of protecting Dublin’s special character. We’re not Manhattan. Dublin’s character is well preserved in its historic Georgian core – as it should be. Dublin’s docklands – consistent with many other UK, European and world cities – is where the city has the chance to evolve without interfering with, or compromising, that special character.


Docklands is precisely where we should be thinking about enabling Dublin to compete as a world city – brownfield urban regeneration, at scale, at a remove from the city core and delivered to the highest standards of sustainability. The fact of a developer making a profit doesn’t render that statement any less true.

What are we preserving, exactly, if we rule out meaningful height in the last significant site remaining in the city that can accommodate a development of this type? Preserving traffic congestion as it is? Upholding urban sprawl? Keeping emissions as high as they are? Restricting the delivery of homes at scale in the middle of a housing crisis?

Dublin is at breaking point in terms of housing and congestion, recently ranked the sixth most congested city in Europe, according to the TomTom Traffic Index, and the 17th most congested city in the world.

Meanwhile, Ireland ranks number one globally (Mauritius is number two) as the country with the largest building-height gap. That’s not a good thing. It means that we grossly under-build in terms of height, more than anywhere else in the world. Higher gaps correlate with more expensive housing, meaning more sprawl, more traffic congestion and poorer air quality. This is not where we want to be “leading” the world.

Any objective analysis would conclude that a strategic location in the heart of the regenerated docklands, removed from the Georgian core, on the river and served by excellent public transport links, is the perfect place for taller buildings.

And yet, cheered on by McDonald, the council fights tooth and nail to preserve the status quo, rendering Dublin’s docklands the only place in Ireland where appropriate and meaningful height cannot be delivered.

Why can meaningful height be part of the solution for other leading European cities such as Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Cork – but not Dublin? After all, Dubliners want height – a Red C poll commissioned by Ronan Group in 2019 showed that 87 per cent of respondents support tall buildings on the city skyline.

The solution to our housing crisis lies in boosting supply. There are simply not enough homes, whether they are owner-occupied, rented, social or shared, expensive or affordable. Young people want housing, it’s as simple as that. They also want to live close to where they work or study. Dense housing, in appropriate urban locations, is the answer.

Waterfront South Central is far from giving two fingers. It is about pointing the way with what will be the world's first carbon-positive mixed-use city quarter

The local authority has repeatedly “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory” over the past three decades, a phrase used by Stripe’s John Collison when commenting last week on the council’s reaction to Waterfront South Central. Nowhere is the abject failure of the council’s planning policy more evident than the Dublin docklands.

Spencer Dock, North Wall Quay, Dublin 1, is the proud home of the world’s first carbon-neutral convention centre, the CCD. The Docklands SDZ, however, saw to it that it is the only convention centre in the world without a dedicated hotel attached.

Next door to the CCD at Spencer Place, Dublin will imminently welcome the greenest Salesforce Tower in the world. Residential development, though, has been capped at six storeys at the Salesforce campus in 2021, when the site is bounded on either side by 12-storey buildings dating back to 2007.

So, it was possible to build higher in 2007 than it is in 2021, notwithstanding the implementation of both the Urban Development and Building Heights Guidelines in 2018 (designed to promote height in appropriate locations) and the Strategic Housing Development process (designed to fast-track the delivery of much-needed residential accommodation).

The council's response? To take taxpayer-funded legal action, twice, against another planning body, An Bord Pleanála, thereby limiting residential development at Spencer Place to six storeys and commercial to eight storeys. 164 homes and 1,000 additional Salesforce jobs, gone. Housing, and jobs.

The simple fact is that a lack of ambition risks a wasteful use of our scarce resources. Tall buildings in the right locations – Dublin docklands, in particular – must be part of the solution.

Waterfront South Central is far from giving two fingers. It is about pointing the way with what will be the world’s first carbon-positive mixed-use city quarter – right here in Dublin. A place that more than 2,000 people can be proud to call home.

It’s high time we scrapped the Docklands SDZ. It’s housing, stupid!

Johnny Ronan is head of Ronan Group, the developer behind the proposed Waterfront South Central, a high-rise building project on the north bank of the Liffey in Dublin