Ghost town: south Dublin’s Georgian core in need of new life
Only three houses on Merrion Square and eight houses on Fitzwilliam Square are lived in. What is holding people back from moving into the area and what will it take to repopulate Dublin’s southside Georgian core?
The Georgian buildings on Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Stained glass at the Italian Cultural Centre on Fitzwilliam Square. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Georgian houses on Merrion Square in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Urban Agency’s mews house design for a mid-terrace site at the rear of Fitzwilliam Square
It use to be the address for Dublin’s middle-class professionals – medical consultants in the good old days, solicitors more recently, some architects still – but the south Georgian core is now in trouble as a working area, with up to 20 per cent of its buildings vacant.
This is seen by many experts as a perfect storm caused by changing business models, plunging property values, escalating maintenance costs, scarce resources and a perceived onerous interpretation by Dublin City Council officials of architectural conservation and building-control policies. But the storm could also be an unrivalled opportunity to return the Georgian squares and streets to their original use – residential – thereby injecting much-needed life into an area that is now dead after dark.
City council planners are focusing on what might be done through policy co-ordination, marketing, tax incentives and other initiatives to promote the concept of “Living, working and waking up in Georgian Dublin” – based on a “residential vision” that aims to consolidate the city core and urbanism in general. It is set out in a lengthy discursive document, The Future of the South Georgian Core , drawn up last year by senior planner Paul Kearns, with detailed recommendations; if these are not implemented, the report says, the future of one of the most distinctive areas in Dublin would be “put seriously at risk”.
It describes Merrion Square, Fitzwilliam Square and their adjoining Georgian streets as “arguably Dublin’s greatest architectural and urban design set-pieces” (after College Green, surely?) and says Dubliners “wouldn’t disagree that this is quintessentially the most beautiful part of their city”.
‘Nobody lives there’
So why is it that hardly anyone lives there? According to the 2011 Census, a mere 531 people reside in the south Georgian core, of which less than half are in buildings pre-dating 1919. A survey by DIT also found that only 7 per cent of all the properties in the Georgian streets and squares were residential.
Some of the underlying reasons cited by consultees included the self-reinforcing point that “nobody lives there” (which could obviously be changed) and other factors, such as the lack of gardens for children to play in and the quality of local schools. But St Stephen’s Green is close by as are some of the best schools in the city.
Other consultees felt that “the houses are simply too big” – a view Kearns found unconvincing, given that so many desirable homes in Ballsbridge, Dalkey and Palmerston Road are equivalent in size to houses on Fitzwilliam Square. And the flights of stairs “would not present a problem [for] able-bodied cohorts”.
Concerns were also expressed about the cost of ongoing maintenance and the potential cost of carrying out renovations, due to uncertainty over how Dublin City Council’s conservation policies would be applied. Approval for the parking of double-decker buses on the south side of the square “doesn’t instil confidence”, the report concedes.
It also notes that overwhelming office use in the area is sustained by “free” off-street parking – most of it unauthorised. The report says this has a real economic value: at €2.50 an hour, the value of 20 car-parking spaces in any of the rear gardens works out at €100,000 a year.
Whatever the reasons, just three houses on Merrion Square and eight houses on Fitzwilliam Square are lived in. But even some of these are “phantom residential”, such as the little-used house at 71 Merrion Square, controversially renovated by Dermot Desmond, whose principal Irish residence is on Ailesbury Road.
Many of Kearns’s consultees “referred to what is invariably described as ‘The Dermot Desmond Dumb Waiter Legacy’, which has left a long-lasting and negative impression that the city council doesn’t understand, nor is it sympathetic to, the desires or concerns of a certain high-income residential urban needs”.
As the report says, there was “a concern or fear that conservation policy would inhibit the fitting or kitting-out of homes with all the mod cons of contemporary high-end residential living” – such as Desmond’s dumb waiter. The installation of a lift was also seen by many as desirable or even necessary.
Certainly, there was “considerable disquiet” among the consultees about the council’s strict application of disability-access certificates by its building-control section. Quite how strict may be gauged by a survey showing that Dublin city accounted for 20 of 21 appeals to An Bord Pleanála in 2010-2012, most of which were upheld.
The report recommends that building-control officers should show more flexibility in dealing with protected structures, as they are allowed to do under the Building Regulations, and that the city council should set up a “one-stop shop” where investors could get expert guidance on what they would be allowed to do.
During the property bubble, it was not uncommon for houses on Merrion Square to sell for up to €5 million each – depending on their size, condition and availability of car parking. More recently, prices sought for these large period houses have fallen to €1-€2 million.
“The sharp decline in property prices provides an opportunity to prospective residential investment . . . particularly for middle-income earners,” the report says.
Demonstration models are needed now, to show how this would work – as the ESB has pledged to do in the context of its plans for Fitzwilliam Street. The city council got Architecture Republic (now Urban Agency) to look at converting a standard four-storey-over-basement building into apartments – the “Georgian Penthouse Duplex” (top two floors), the “Georgian Piano Nobile Duplex” (main floor, with mezzanine) and the “Georgian City Garden Duplex” (hall floor and basement).
According to Kearns, such beguiling terms “can become powerful marketing tools in furthering successful urban regeneration in Georgian Dublin” – but only if fire safety and access issues are resolved by taking a more balanced approach, based on a “shared vision” among planning, conservation and building-control officers.
His report cautions against “conservation approaches to protected structures that are neither feasible nor practicable” and says it should be possible to install “pocket balcony spaces” or even roof gardens. A virtual 3D model of the area might also be generated and could be used as a phone app to promote cultural tourism.
But if Dublin is to succeed in having its Georgian core designated by Unesco as a world-heritage site, attracting middle-income earners to live there “should be a policy priority”; it cannot be left as “nobody’s job”. Edinburgh, for example, has nine specialist planners/conservation officers dealing with its Georgian New Town.
The city council has shown its goodwill by abolishing punitive planning levies for changes of use from office to residential and it wants to see the Government initiative Living in the City e xtended to the south Georgian core. What it needs to do now, Kearns suggests, is appoint a “tsar” to take charge of the area.
CLASSICAL SEQUENCES: MEWS HOUSE ON FITZWILLIAM SQUARE
When architects Urban Agency designed a mews house for a mid-terrace site at the rear of Fitzwilliam Square, the challenge was how to cater for contemporary living within the historical urban fabric. Eschewing pastiche, the practice aimed to “reinvent the banal box typology” of some mews schemes in Dublin, opting for four interlocking, offset vaults to create a “dynamic series of outdoor and indoor spaces flooded with natural light”.
The vaults – inspired by the dominant stone arch on the lane, says Moroccan- born Maxime Laroussi – allow for an enfilade of grand rooms surrounded by a series of gardens and patios, even though the house is “only 130sq m”.
“The movement through the house has been imagined as a journey, with a series of spatial sequences articulated with various thresholds; low and high spaces, compressed and released moments, short and long views, the whole orchestrated with natural light.”
Bedrooms are at ground level, looking into a winter garden reminiscent of the Victorian orangerie, while the living room, kitchen and dining areas are upstairs – a “true piano nobile, floating between the treetops”, as Laroussi says. Whether the lanes around Fitzwilliam and Merrion squares could take equally imaginative mews houses without turning into an architectural menagerie is a moot point.