The reconstruction of Dublin

Dubliners were promised a sustainable city, with underground public transport and ‘world class’ public spaces. They got severe homelessness, traffic-choked suburbs, and a city with nobody in charge. Will economic recovery make the capital work better?

Thirty years on from the Dublin Crisis Conference, Frank McDonald claims that the capital is in crisis again. The developers are back - but there is homelessness, suburbanisation and bad planning. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Thirty years ago, in February 1986, a group of us got together to stage the Dublin Crisis Conference. The city was in bits, chewed up by property speculators and road engineers, and desperately needed to be saved from the forces that were destroying it.

Concerned citizens packed the old Synod Hall of Christ Church for a whole weekend, and we – Dean Victor Griffin, Senator David Norris, Larry Dillon, Deirdre Kelly, Mick Rafferty, Donal Storey and I – even managed to get Garret FitzGerald, who was taoiseach at the time, to come along and respond to the conference’s conclusions, principally our demand that officialdom face up to the scale of the problem.

We wanted the government and the Dublin local authorities to “recognise and accept that the city is in crisis” and called for radical changes in public policy, including abandonment of destructive road plans for the inner city and a package of tax incentives to encourage people to live in town.

For decades relentless suburbanisation had reduced the population of the inner city – that oval-shaped area between the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal – from a high of 250,000 in the mid-1920s to a low of just 75,000 in 1991. Only one in 12 Dubliners was left living in the historic core.

The Dublin Crisis Conference made an impact. Within months the government announced a tax incentive scheme aimed at renewing derelict areas, and as a result of that and other initiatives the population of the inner city (including the docklands) increased to more than 130,000 in 2011.

Despite this measurable progress Dublin is a city in crisis once again – and housing is at the heart of it. This was dramatically underlined by the publication of figures in February showing that the number of homeless children doubled over the past year, to 1,570, in 769 families who had lost their homes.

The boom-and-bust cycle is at least partly to blame. According to Focus Ireland, the homelessness charity, up to half of 134 families made homeless in January alone were collateral casualties of banks taking back properties owned by overstretched buy-to-let landlords, which would then be put on the market with vacant possession.

The underlying reason why we have a housing crisis is that, in the wake of the property crash, developers no longer had the resources to build new homes. Many of the bigger players and their bankers went bust – and, in any case, the fall in values meant that it wouldn’t pay them to build anything.

Since the bubble burst, both the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats-Green Party coalition and its Fine Gael-Labour successor have also been strapped for cash. They appeared to believe that the widespread phenomenon of ghost estates meant that Ireland had a surplus of residential stock rather than an underlying deficit, especially in Dublin.

Developers are back

Now that the economy is in recovery mode the developers are back. So far, however, most of them are investing in commercial schemes – office blocks, in particular – which is why the outgoing Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, intervened to reduce apartment-design standards.

He seemed not only determined to stop local authorities, such as Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, adopting highly efficient passive-house standards for new housing but also ensured, through the adoption of mandatory “guidelines”, that apartments would be significantly smaller, to make them more economical to build.

Developers with a longer-term view are likely to be generous, and the market is more sophisticated. At the top end, big, high-quality apartments have been built above the H&M store on College Green by Clarendon Properties, which was quoting rents of €3,000 a month for these trophy flats.

But if more upmarket apartments are to be installed in historic buildings such as this former bank, some leeway will have to be given on fire regulations. These have become the most serious impediment to “living above the shop”, and it is long past time for a more realistic approach to such risks.

Up to 2,500 apartments are expected to be built in the docklands, which is now designated a strategic development zone. But the main focus in Docklands and elsewhere is on commercial schemes, principally new office blocks, which are in high demand after the recession.

But notions that Docklands will become “the Canary Wharf of Dublin”, as the outgoing Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, suggested in 2014, are mere hyperbole, given that the masterplan provides for only two towers, rising to a height of 80m or 90m – substantially lower than the London version, which reaches 236m.

With all of the “distressed assets” it controls, Nama is a major player in Docklands; it has agreed to provide €170 million in funding to redevelop Bolands Mill, between Barrow Street and Grand Canal Dock. The scheme by BKD Architects is mainly for offices, although it will also have 41 apartments.

In December Nama announced a €7.5 billion development programme to deliver 353,000sq m of commercial office and retail space in Docklands, as well as 20,000 homes throughout Ireland. Of these, 78 per cent would be built in Dublin, with the remainder in “other areas of strong demand”, mainly the smaller cities.

One of the most innovative housing schemes yet planned for Dublin has been designed by Urban Agency Architects for the US developer Hines, near Spencer Dock. It will have 165 apartments, all for long-term rental, with big balconies, a concierge, a gym, breakout rooms and other facilities.

The Docklands masterplan requires developers to contribute land for a series of “pocket parks” in the 22-hectare strategic development zone. These would be useful amenities for families living in the area, although demographic studies suggest that the strongest demand will be for smaller, two-bedroom flats.

Residential amenity is a long-established concept in town planning, yet it is being eroded for inner-city residents by noise from pubs, nightclubs and even cafes and shops, with external loudspeakers blasting the place with noise pollution. Amplified busking, public urination and fly-tipping are also problematic.

Out in Cherrywood, at the southern tip of the city – already served by the Luas Green line – Hines has become the lead developer of this long-standing strategic development zone, promising to “redefine quality of life in Dublin, integrating homes and shops, work and transport, schools and parks, in a positive, sustainable society like nowhere else in the capital”.

Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown’s masterplan for the 360-hectare Cherrywood zone provides for the development of nearly 4,000 homes, mainly apartments, along with 484,500sq m of offices and 37,800sq m of retail space, as well as three parks. Sadly, most of its “streets” will be more like big roads.

There is no indication that Dublin’s local authorities have taken on board the progressive Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets, published by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government in 2013. Traffic calming and elimination of one-way streets and sheep-pen-style guardrails at pedestrian crossings are issues that are simply being ignored.

In 2012 Dublin City Council published a strategy promising a “world-class public realm” that would match Dublin’s aspiration to be “a sustainable, dynamic and resourceful city . . . renowned internationally for its unique character, vibrant culture and a diverse, smart, green, innovation-based economy”.

Real test: College Green

Apart from the dull new paving on Grafton Street we have seen precious little sign of anything emerging from the public-realm strategy. The real test will be how College Green is treated and whether the current plan to turn it into a high-quality pedestrian plaza will be realised.

Dublin is now the principal economic engine of the State, mainly because of our failure over decades to designate anywhere else. But the way it has developed over the past 20 years, leapfrogging all over Leinster, defied official planning policies, which were all about consolidating the metropolitan area.

The relentless sprawl of Dublin has also affected the city’s urban villages – places such as Ranelagh, Rathmines, Drumcondra and Phibsborough – by turning them into traffic-choked transit routes for motorists on long commutes, at the expense of local people, neighbourhood shops and other businesses.

How people will get around is increasingly important, given the urgent need to reduce climate-changing emissions from transport. Because of Dublin’s sprawl the single most strategic project is Dart Underground, as it alone offers the opportunity to integrate all suburban rail services into a real network.

But the outgoing Government has sidelined this plan in favour of proceeding with Metro North, a mainly tunnelled tramway between St Stephen’s Green and Swords, serving Dublin Airport. A fast bus service using the lightly trafficked Port Tunnel would be just as effective and a lot cheaper.

The Dart service needs to speed up. At present it trundles along the line, stopping at every station for between 30 and 75 seconds, which is far too long. Similarly, several minutes could be shaved off journey times on the Luas Red line by giving trams full priority at every street junction.

But that’s not in the gift of the city council. In truth nobody is in charge of Dublin: it’s on autopilot. Not only was the county divided up arbitrarily into four local-authority areas – Fingal, South Dublin, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and the city itself – but numerous other agencies are also involved.

The local authorities are largely powerless, their functions stripped away by State agencies such as Irish Water and the National Transport Authority, or taken over by private waste-management companies. Yet the prospect of Dublin having a directly elected mayor has all but vanished.

Last year Dublin Region Homeless Executive, set up by the local authorities, shelled out more than €25 million on “emergency accommodation” for homeless families in hotels, guest houses and B&Bs. This would be enough to build 150 modular homes, according to the Peter McVerry Trust.

At the same time a large and growing number of apartments in Dublin have been subtracted from the housing stock and turned over to more lucrative short-term holiday-rental use through agencies such as Airbnb and Booking.com. These may now exceed the number of flats available to let.

So we now have the bizarre situation of homeless families being “housed” in hotel rooms while hundreds of apartments in the city are being used to accommodate tourists. In most cases their conversion to what is effectively commercial status has been done without planning permission for change of use.

The number of apartments available for long-term letting in Dublin has fallen sharply in recent years because of the shortage of rental properties. This has, predictably, pushed up rents, which are now more than 40 per cent higher than they were in the trough six years ago.

Between 2008 and 2012 almost 5,200 apartments or houses in Dublin were available to rent at any one time. But as of February 1st this year fewer than 1,400 properties were available in a city of more than 500,000 households, more than a third of which rent, according to the property website Daft.ie.

Ronan Lyons, an expert on the rental sector as Daft.ie’s in-house economist, pointed out in his most recent report that rents in Dublin 2 – “the archetypal urban market” – have risen much faster than those in Leitrim. In 2006 they were 2.8 times the going rate in Leitrim; now the ratio is nearly 3.7. This reflects what Lyons calls the urban premium; cities are where the bulk of jobs are created and, therefore, where population growth is most pronounced. “The bigger the city, the better the labour-market amenity,” he says. Put simply, Dublin offers younger people more employment opportunities.

Boosting the supply of rental housing must be a priority for the next government, Lyons says. There is a consensus on this, at least for social housing, with Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin promising to trump the outgoing Government’s pledge to build 35,000 homes by 2020, at a cost of €3.8 billion.

Social housing

This in itself was a radical departure, given that relatively few social-housing units have been built in Dublin or elsewhere since the 1980s. Successive governments left it almost entirely to the private sector, providing reduced supplements to social-welfare tenants so that they could pay the rent.

Blanket rent controls wouldn’t work because such a measure would deter investment in the sector, leaving potential landlords fearful that they wouldn’t make an economic return. So the supply of rental housing would be choked even further, which is in nobody’s interest.

Had part V of the 2000 Planning Act been implemented, with developers required to set aside up to 20 per cent of any scheme for social and affordable housing, we would now have a sizeable stock. But it was eviscerated in 2002 by the minister for the environment at the time, Martin Cullen, at the builders’ behest.

Dublin will also need to be futureproofed against the impact of climate change, particularly storm surges, and this should be done less crudely than building concrete walls along the Clontarf seafront and in the docklands. Meanwhile, we have a lot of derelict sites to develop.

All things considered, perhaps we need another Dublin Crisis Conference.

Frank McDonald is former environment editor of The Irish Times and author of The Destruction of Dublin (1985), Saving the City (1989) and The Construction of Dublin (2000)

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