A tale of two towns

Ambitious plans are under way to develop the seafront of Dún Laoghaire, but its Victorian main street is in a sorry state of decline

If Charles Dickens was writing about Dún Laoghaire in 2014, he might call the book A Tale of Two Towns. Look at it this way. Walk from the main gate of the People's Park, along what used to be a thriving George's Street to York Road, at the other end of the town, and you will encounter too many abandoned premises. By my count last Tuesday, and taking into account side streets, there are 101 empty premises, including 39 in Dún Laoghaire Shopping Centre.

Dún Laoghaire may even win the dubious title, “Irish town most decimated during the recession”– although there are many local people who maintain, with a sense of outrage that is palpable, that its recent rapid rate of deterioration has more to do with decisions made by the county council, particularly in relation to car parking, rates and one hugely contentious new development. In this sense, Dún Laoghaire has become a microcosm of every town, city and country in Ireland and its fate tells us a story from which we all can learn.

As someone who lives in the area, like my parents and grandparents did before me, it is infuriating and heartbreaking for me to take that walk. I inevitably end up asking myself three questions that must trouble the minds of many people from the area: who let this happen to the main thoroughfare and shopping area in Dún Laoghaire, why, and how can its fortunes be reversed?

This brings us to the “second” Dún Laoghaire. Take a similar walk, starting at the seafront gate of the People’s Park, head towards the East Pier and it is like being transported back to the Celtic Tiger era. Renovations and developments abound. For example, at the end of the park – itself undergoing painstakingly precise restoration – the railway line has been roofed to provide an architectural bookend for the Parisian style café area at the end of Marine Road. There also are plans to renovate Dún Laoghaire Baths, which include a new scenic path across to the East Pier, and this project is awaiting only a foreshore licence before work begins.

All of this is positive and Dún Laoghaire- Rathdown County Council deserves credit. Other planned developments include, a Diaspora Museum, ‘Urban Beach’ and extended halting site for Travellers. And looking beyond the seafront there are developments such as the Braemor Road Enhancement Scheme, Samuel Beckett Civil Campus and a new playing pitch in Marley Park.

However, all the good being done by the council is negated for many people by the arrival of our very own Titanic – at least that's what the new Central Library and Culture Centre in Moran's Park resembles, viewed from the East Pier. Built on an incline, it looks like it is about to set sail and plough right through the now ludicrously dwarfed National Yacht Club.

What the library has actually sheared in half though – apart from the elegant Victorian architectural symmetry that made the coastline a delight to behold – is any sense of social calm among locals. Mention the library – at gatherings from the dole queue to a dinner party in Killiney, then watch sparks fly.

Ann Joyce runs Costello’s Florists and was a member of the Dún Laoghaire Business Association, but is now part of its Community Association. “What is happening to Dún Laoghaire has hit everyone, not just businesses,” she says. She has had printed a “very popular” postcard – alongside a picture of the library. It states: “Look what Owen Keegan left us . . . and a town full of empty buildings”. It claims the development cost €35-€60 million.

Owen Keegan was Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council manager from 2005 until 2013, when he became manager of Dublin City Council. He declined the offer of an interview for this article.

“The library is called ‘Keegan’s folly’ by local people,” Joyce says, angrily, “but then, the first day we [Dún Laoghaire Business Association] met him, he was only two months into the job and said he had ‘great plans’ for Moran’s Park. So it is his baby, but none of us could have guessed where it would all lead.

“Some of us even think there is a ‘let’s- f**k-up-Dún-Laoghaire brigade’ in the Town Hall [county council offices] made up of people who don’t live in the area or give a damn about what happens to us. One day, on Marine Road, I said to Jane Dillon Byrne, who is on the council: “Nobody wants the library” and was told, ‘The staff wants it.’ That said it all, as far as I am concerned.”

Dillon Byrne is happy to address the claim that “the staff” wanted the library. “It was driven by the staff, who were very ambitious to have a central library,” the councillor says. “A library report had been done four to six years ago, was circulated to us and we said yes. We hadn’t had a new library. We had a refurbished one, in Deansgrange, and a small one in Dalkey, but the rest were complements of [Andrew] Carnegie from 1902, or whenever, and they were not offering, say, the facilities, computer-wise, that were becoming the norm around the country, as in, reading rooms, music rooms, all that.”

Even so, claims that the staff wanted the library will feed into the widespread rumour that the new development is “not really a library”. It is an office block that includes a library, and extra floors have been added to accommodate council employees who want to relocate and avail of the sea view and parking facilities.

“That is not true and I have been pursuing all this with avid interest; that’s nonsense spread by [TD] Richard Boyd Barrett,” Byrne responds. She also describes as “not true” the claim that the development cost up to €60 million.

“My understanding is that it is within budget, roughly €35 million, though it may have gone a million or two or so over that, but extra floors have not been added, although that kind of rumour is, understandably, making so many local people very angry. But it is not just a library. There will be areas for performance, readings, art exhibitions, so much along those lines, all of which I welcome as a lifetime supporter of the arts.”

Dillon Byrne does not, however, welcome the new development architecturally, agreeing that it fractures the symmetry of the coastline, and she is “extremely concerned” about its height. “It adds nothing to the landscape,” she says.

On the suggestion that the county council is neglecting George’s Street, she says: “The economy has changed, the nature of shopping has changed, particularly for young people who, regrettably, in terms of Dún Laoghaire, seem to want to go where the major malls are, such as in Dundrum. But there still are smashing stores on the main street of Dún Laoghaire, such as Penneys and Shaws, and I hope they remain with us.”

Many people suggest that the future of such shops would be more secure were it not for two hugely influential and destructive factors: rates and car-parking charges. This certainly is the view of Rita O’Brien and Peter Kerrigan, who propose that “there should be, for example, two hours of free parking”. They also represent the Fair Rates for Dún Laoghaire group that recently took out a full-page advertisement in national newspapers. It showed an aerial view of the library, had the headline “Enough is Enough” and claimed it cost €30-60 million.

The advertisement said “Vote No to BID in Dún Laoghaire”, a reference to the proposed partnership between local businesses and the council that would make the town a Business Improvement District. As part of the scheme, a levy would be paid by traders, adding roughly 3 per cent to rates. Voting is currently taking place and will close on February 12th.

Dillon Byrne would back the proposal, but adds a proviso. “I have reservations because I think it is necessary that we get the majority of businesses on board,” she says. “There are 800 businesses in Dún Laoghaire and we must get 50 per cent to 70 per cent of those business people to be participants. With, say 20 per cent, it won’t work, I believe.”

O’Brien explains her reservations. “We are a business on Mulgrave Street. We pay rates and we feel we don’t get anything back, because the council seems to spend all the money on the seafront. That is great for the seafront, but the rest of the town has been decimated. The beach is like Monaco and the rest of the town is like Beirut. Our view, in terms of BID is, yes, we need to do something, but another tax is not the answer.”

Kerrigan says “The real problem is the council”, which he says operates like a totalitarian regime. “These people, the executive of the council, have built an empire for themselves and they [seem to] believe the money [collected in rates etc] is their money and they will spend it as they see fit. In other words, the county manager and the senior people and the staff [seem to] believe that the money is not the people’s money. And over time, they have broken down individual councillors – they are put on committees, whatever, compromised to such a degree that they now are powerless.

“So, the ratepayers, the people who elect these councillors, have no power themselves. In fact, when I first heard the library being compared to Ceausescu’s Palace I thought the analogy was way over the top. Now, I don’t. The library is a kind of monument to, the immortalisation of, through a building, Owen Keegan. There are those who are afraid that in a few years, it will the be left derelict, a waste of money.”

Merrigan rejects the suggestion that the council executives act like a totalitarian regime. He also rejects the idea that he and his peers have been compromised and left powerless. “Firstly, the council has to act within the parameters of the law in terms of this,” he says, referring specifically to the library.

“My belief is that the failure is one of deception as an unintended consequence of procedure. For example, the original proposal put before the council on November 9th 2009, states that the library and cultural centre will be a low building, fitting in with the Maritime Museum and linking to the town’s heritage assets, and so on. Very few would have objections to that.

“But the planning department of the council, normally very professional, providing neutral information, should at least have raised questions on the appropriateness of the procedure whereby the planning department was giving advice on an application by the council itself.

“It should have [involved] an outside body, such as An Bord Pleanála, to make decisions like this. We may even need to have legislative reform to see that does happen when it comes to future developments.”

The phrase “deception as an unintended consequence of procedure” is decidedly diplomatic. Mightn’t the proposal have been over the heads of councillors, intentionally?

“That [comment] suggests that all the councillors were hoodwinked and I don’t believe that is so. The plans were put to them and they voted, in good faith, I believe. But many councillors, who did vote enthusiastically for the proposal in 2009, are now expressing shock at the scale of the building. And they are encountering the anger and disbelief of local people, who realise that once again a section of the Victorian heartland in the town has been sacrificed, for what many do believe is a county council office block in which a library will be situated. Maybe councillors weren’t the right people to be asked to vote on this in the first place, and that’s why I suggest that we need to bring in, say, An Bord Pleanála in future.”

There is concern that a precedent has been set by its scale and height and that this model will be reused. “That is a fear many people have expressed,” Merrigan says, “and if that happens it will provide the Benidorm effect which allows for coastal heights to increase while behind the high-rise is the old town, which is low.”

So, this just may become a tale of two towns. But what would Merrigan say needs to be done in order to save the old town? “What we have now is an uneven development that reorients the town, leading footfall away from the town and down to the seafront, making the main street a back street, so we need a more balanced development,” he suggests. “And let’s not forget that the library was built out of discretionary funds. The county council doesn’t have money. These are public funds that have a discretionary use by the council.

“What we must ask now is, and many are asking this question: what were the priorities of the council when they decided that amount of money should be spent on this development in particular, rather than on other worthy developments such as revitalising the whole of Dún Laoghaire.”

Yet, let’s leave the final word to an executive from Dun Laoghaire- Rathdown County Council, who will address concerns raised in this article. Kathleen Holohan was Owen Keegan’s Deputy Manager, is now Acting County Council Manager, has applied for the permanent job and says, to start with, that the library is not “Keegan’s Folly,” and wasn’t always his “baby.”

“OK, he was around when it got approval, but the concept for a Cultural Centre goes back to the late nineties and I don’t see it as a “folly.” Any town in Ireland would give its eye teeth for such a development. We expect 500,000 visitors a year, which can only help Dun Laoghaire.”

Holohan insists that the library, which will open in September, didn’t cost €60 million. “It cost €36 million, inclusive of VAT and is coming in on budget and on time.”

Also, “no extra floors have been added”, to the library, it was “built in accordance with Part 8 Planning”, and the number of staff relocating, from the Harbour Square council offices will be “roughly 30”. And “They will be the library staff, mostly, and located at the lowest level of the building” because, Holohan stresses, “the bulk of the space is for library facilities”.

She also dismisses the idea that in time the building will become county council offices. “It’s not even set up [designed] for that to happen.” Furthermore, according to Kathleen Holohan, the library “is built according to plan and not any higher, or bigger than it was meant to be”.

By this stage, I feel like Holohan’s interrogator on behalf of the people and she is happier when our chat turns to a discussion of ways in which the main street can be saved from terminal decline. While rejecting the claim that the library will lead footfall away from the Dún Laoghaire, Holohan makes it clear she sees no divide between the “old town” and “new town”.

“Our long-term vision is to reconnect the town to the seafront and the seafront back to the town, and I see the library serving that purpose, she asserts. “I see the town in its entirety. For example, we are redeveloping lanes behind George’s Street and we have plans to upgrade work around the Church; the redevelopment of the Boylan Centre, and so on. All of this is our attempt to increase the footfall in the town and to link it with the seafront.”

In this seeming refocus from the seafront to the main street, the county council also is “in talks with stakeholders, about the issue of empty shops”, has its eye on “some sites that could be redeveloped”, and would consider reversing the pedestrianisation from Patrick’s Street to the Bloomfield Centre and making it a two-way street again. Holohan also points out that commercial rates were reduced in 2010, 2011, 2013, by 2 per cent each year. And next month car parking rates will be reduced “from €2 to €1.50”.

Holohan ends with a point worth remembering. “If people want to help regenerate Dún Laoghaire, it might be helpful to stop all the negativity,” she suggests. “Besides, I work in the town, I want a Dún Laoghaire people can be proud of and the 400 staff here want a town they are proud of. That’s why what you said [the belief that there is a let’s-f**k-up-brigade in the county council] I reject. We have a lot of people on this council working hard and diligently on various issues to help the people of this town and in the end, we want Dún Laoghaire revitalised as much as anyone does.”

Amen to that.