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100 properties face the wrecking ball to make way for MetroLink

The ‘emerging preferred route’ for Dublin’s MetroLink rail line runs under College Gate apartments. It faces demolition, and many of its residents are stuck there until that happens

College Gate apartment block takes its name from Ireland’s oldest university, which it overlooks, in the centre of Dublin 2. The L-shaped block on Townsend Street, close to Tara Street Station, contains 70 apartments of various configurations.

On the ground floor is the Markievicz Leisure Centre with a gym and Dublin’s largest city-centre public swimming pool. Pedestrians may know the block by the distinctive statue of Countess Markievicz and her spaniel dog, Poppet, which stands near the main entrance.

There are notices beside the lift at every stairwell inside the building, put there by a group of residents. “Save College Gate Apartments” they read. “You might have heard that the proposed route for the MetroLink will imply College Gate being demolished…”

For the owner-occupiers and tenants of College Gate, there is no way that any ‘overall negative impact’ could be minimised

The Markievicz Leisure Centre was renovated only two years ago by Dublin City Council at a cost of €1 million. Now it is proposed that it be demolished, along with the apartment block that stands over and alongside it.

This is part of the “emerging preferred route” for the proposed $3 billion MetroLink rail line. The initiative is being led by the National Transport Authority and Transport Infrastructure Ireland.

Plans for the 26km MetroLink were first announced in 2017. Almost half of it is to be underground. The project is due to start in 2021 and is scheduled to take six years.

If completed as proposed, the building of MetroLink will necessitate the compulsory purchase of some 100 properties. These include gardens at various locations along the route, and the entire College Gate apartment block, which was built in the late 1990s.

Residents at the apartment block received letters in March last year from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, which clearly indicated that the future of their homes was uncertain. Explaining the reasons for the proposed route, Transport Infrastructure Ireland stated: “This is the route that we feel offers the best solution in terms of maximising the long-term benefit to the city, while minimising the overall negative impact on communities in the shorter term, particularly during construction.”

For the owner-occupiers and tenants of College Gate, there is no way that any “overall negative impact” could be minimised, should the proposed MetroLink route result in the disappearance of their homes. They are campaigning to try and save their homes.

These are some of the stories of the people who live there.

Elena Garcia, owner

Spanish-born Elena Garcia is making coffee in the little kitchen of her one-bedroom apartment. Last year, she had planned to renovate the kitchen, which needed updating before she bought it, but everything is on hold now. There is no point doing work on an apartment that may not exist in a couple of years.

She has been living in College Gate for 11 years, many of them as a tenant in a different apartment; a two-bed. Then, in 2013, she started looking to buy her own place. “It was like a part-time job,” she recalls grimly, sitting in her neat sixth-floor livingroom that overlooks the Markievicz pool below and a swathe of Liffeyside Dublin.

It had taken a lot of time to find it, but I saw that time spent as an investment in my future. I moved in, and I felt safe here

Garcia searched for two and a half years. She spent most of her free time online. At weekends, she viewed up to six properties a time. “I was outbid several times by cash buyers,” she says. She had three offers accepted, but two fell though after her surveyor found serious problems; one with a balcony and the other with what he considered to be a lack of sufficient fire safety. “The third seller pulled out. I didn’t even get to survey that one.”

After all this searching through every postcode in Dublin, it was an apartment in her very own building that she noticed one day for sale on Daft. “I didn’t think I could afford it, but my friends told me to go look at it anyway.”

As it turned out, the apartment was owned by the National Assets Management Agency, or Nama. Her offer was accepted, although it took six months for the sale to go through: she called every day to check on when her move-in date would be. Garcia finally moved into her new home in December 2015.

“It had taken a lot of time to find it, but I saw that time spent as an investment in my future,” she explains. “I moved in, and I felt safe here.”

College Gate: Elena Garcia. Photograph: Alan Betson

That feeling of safety vanished in spring last year, when a letter arrived from Transport Infrastructure Ireland. She shows it to me. The letter explains that there is a design for MetroLink and along with it, “what we call our emerging preferred route…this will be of particular interest to you, because as the property owner of the above address, the route in question may have impact on your property”.

“I didn’t understand what it meant,” she says. “Where I come from, they have metros and they don’t knock down apartment blocks to build them; they go under them.”

Garcia put a call in to a member of the apartment block’s management committee, asking her to call back. She said: “The swimming pool is going, and the gym, so it probably means the apartment block will go too”.

Garcia was at work when she received this call. “I was devastated. I couldn’t even speak. My colleagues were really worried. I could not believe this was happening.”

After a few weeks, when the initial shock had receded slightly, she started talking to neighbours and knocking on doors to campaign for the retention of the building – “trying to channel all that upset into doing something about it”.

The future is uncertain. Garcia has already done her research on what one-bedroom apartments are currently renting for in Dublin 2. “The minimum is €1,500 and it goes up to the thousands. The minimum is less than my current mortgage payments. So what happens if I have to spend another couple of years renting while I am looking for something to buy? I am going to be in competition with all my neighbours to rent, and I don’t have any family here to stay with while I look again. I already invested so much time in finding my home.

“I know there will be compensation if the block is bought, but I won’t be compensated for the time I already spent looking for this home. And how are they going to compensate for the time I will have to spend in the future? That is my fear.

“I am trying to live in the moment, but sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think I might not be here in another year. Where will I be?”

Marco Grilli, tenant

When Grilli’s wife, Ilaria, was offered a job in Dublin in 2016, the couple moved over from Italy. “We were absolutely lucky,” he says. “We found this one-bed apartment on the first floor in College Gate after only two weeks of searching. It is an amazing location, and we found it very quickly.”

The Grillis are tenants and thus have a choice of leaving College Gate but this is the worst possible time for them to be considering a move. “Our first baby is due at the end of March,” he explains. “Moving right now is not a priority for us.”

The imminent arrival of their baby means that decisions about where they may live are on hold. “There is no clear plan on when the building is going to be knocked down and we don’t know where and where we might go,” he says.

We will have to find another place, and we will be in the thick of looking, in competition with everyone else

In the years since moving to Dublin, they have realised how strained the rental market is. They had told themselves many times how lucky they had been to find their city-centre apartment so swiftly. They now know a lot more about the rental market.

“We will have to find another place, and we will be in the thick of looking, in competition with everyone else,” he says. They have already looked at the price of other one-bedroom apartments in Dublin 2. “An equivalent apartment in Dublin 2 would be much more expensive, no less than €1,600, and that is a crazy price for a one-bed.”

The rental problems that lie ahead for them are not just about affordability, but location. “We want to stay in the city centre, but there is such a shortage of places, that might not happen. But there is no financial advantage to moving out to the suburbs, because the prices are the same, but without the advantage of the city centre location.”

Grilli notes that buildings other than their own are being demolished in the city centre. “I don’t see the point of knocking down an apartment building like ours. They are building new offices in the centre, but not apartments. Where are people like us meant to live?”

Guillaume de Montalivet, owner

French-born Guillaume de Montalivet and his wife, Blanche, had been renting in Dublin for some years before buying their two-bed apartment in August 2017. “We moved to Ireland after we had just got married,” he says. “We wanted to live abroad, and we thought Dublin would be a great city. We made a deliberate choice to live here in Ireland, and that is another reason why it has been really hard since we heard the news.”

Three years ago, the de Montalivets decided it made more financial sense to buy than to continue renting, because they were expecting their first child. At the time, they were renting a one-bedroom apartment, also in Dublin 2. The rent on a two-bedroom place in the same area was going to be the same, or more than a mortgage. “We wanted to stay in the same area. Buying in Dublin was scary. We knew that the value of property can be lost very quickly. The reason for looking in Dublin 2 was that we thought, even if the value decreases, we can still rent out the apartment if we move on, because people always want to live in the city centre. It was either buy, or go back to France.”

By the time they had found and bought their College Gate apartment, four of them were living in their one-bed rented apartment of 40sqm. Their second child, a daughter, had arrived to join their son.

Guillaume and Blanche de Montalivet with their children, Philippa and Théophile. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

They had barely been in their new home six months when they heard the news about the proposed Metro route. “We were devastated at the thought our home was going to be destroyed. It took so much time to find the place. We invested in this area, and we thought we were done with our search. Five years ago, when we arrived, renting was a challenge, and now it is even more so.”

For months after the news broke, his wife did not sleep properly, due to stress. “The stress is all the time like something on your shoulders,” he says. “But you have to try and forget about it when you can, otherwise you would go mad.”

The family now feel in a state of paralysis. “We are stuck here. You can’t help but feel trapped,” de Montalivet says. “What happens now? Should we sell? But who would buy it?”

They don’t know what the future holds, or where they might be living in the future. “Our children are going to the creche and we have registered them in a nearby school. In Ireland, both finding a crèche and a school, is a bit of a problem, so if we have to move it might be very difficult to find new places for them.”

Lynsey Black, tenant

Lynsey Black rents a duplex top-floor apartment, which has an L-shaped terrace that wraps round it. “Even though I rent, it feels like home,” she says. Black has lived in this apartment for the past 13 years, first by herself, and then with her partner, now husband.

Over time, they have seen the place change as developers moved in, and new local food businesses set up. “This whole area of Dublin is being slowly gentrified. It did feel like for a long time this was a forgotten part of the city and somewhat neglected,” she says.

I felt community here anyway, but this horrible feeling has enhanced that. The sense of community has come out really strongly

A faulty fire alarm some years ago resulted in Black and her husband getting to know several of their neighbours, by way of meeting them in nightclothes in the lobby in the middle of the night.

“There was a time when there was a fault with the fire alarm, and it would go off at all times of the night and day. “You met all sorts of people during that time in the foyer.”

The alarm was so active that they ended up getting to know some of their neighbours well enough to be invited to their weddings. “We know a lot of people with kids, because you recognise the kids. There are people from all over in the block – Italian, French, Spanish, Irish.”

College Gate: Lynsey Black. Photograph: Tom Honan

Tenants heard about the Transport Infrastructure Ireland plans after owners did. It was an owner-occupier neighbour who alerted Black and her husband to the news. “We heard that the gym was to go. We didn’t hear specific mention of the apartment block, but I knew instantly that it had to mean the block was going, because there was no way they could get rid of the gym without also getting rid of the apartment block on top of it.”

Recalling the time when she heard the initial news, she says: “It was a horrible feeling. It ebbs and flows. You can’t maintain and live in a state of deep foreboding about the future. It is so uncertain, we don’t know if it is happening or not, and has almost become unreal because it is going on so long. It is particularly hard for those owners who have kids, because they are stuck here.”

Will they build very expensive apartments over College Gate that we could never afford if we wanted to move back?

They have got to know their neighbours better since the news. “I did a leaflet drop to everyone with another neighbour, so we got to meet everyone in the building. We had various meetings, and been in each other’s apartments for these chats. I felt community here anyway, but this horrible feeling has enhanced that. I am quite impressed by the sense of community that has come out really strongly.”

Black and her husband think they will stay until the end, whatever the end is going to look like. “It feels like home here, and we are reluctant to leave. My husband can walk to work, and I can get the train to Maynooth for my job.”

Black points out how city-centre living has now become extremely desirable for many people. “A lot of people here are sceptical about what will happen the area over the Metro, if it is built. This is one of the few areas zoned for high rise in Dublin. Will they build very expensive apartments over it, that we could never afford, if we wanted to move back?” she says. “I just want Transport Infrastructure Ireland to think before they make decisions they can’t undo.”