Olivia Kelly: Why can’t we save O’Connell Street?

Without ability to close down certain shops no regeneration plan is likely to succeed

There is nothing “wrong” with the physical form of O’Connell Street, the problem is how the buildings are used. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

There is nothing “wrong” with the physical form of O’Connell Street, the problem is how the buildings are used. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

God love the Dublin city planners, but they are triers. Since the 1990s they’ve been coming up with plan after plan to turn around the fortunes of what is the nation’s main street.

They started off in 1998 with the O’Connell Street Integrated Area Plan. Tens of millions were to be invested in the physical transformation of the street. The footpaths and the central median were to be widened; a new plaza created in front of the GPO; the world’s tallest sculpture, the Millennium Spire, was to be installed; old trees removed and new ones planted.

That all happened, but not exactly according to plan. The Spire arrived three years late (nobody uses the “M” word anymore); Green Party politicians chained themselves to the London plane trees to stop them them being chopped down; the repaving was delayed by a riot against a planned loyalist march (during which materials being used for the construction of the street were used as missiles) and the whole thing wasn’t finished until 2006.

Sex shop

There followed a flurry of more plans, directly or indirectly influenced by the coming of the British knicker merchant. There was the designation of the street as an Architectural Conservation Area, to preserve and protect the architecture and the “special character” of the street; the introduction of Shop Front Guidelines, to ensure traditional shopfronts were kept, to prohibit the installation of garish signage; and the publication of a Special Planning Control Scheme.

The latest iteration of the last plan is now available for public consultation. It aims to control the uses of shops and would ban the opening of any more amusement arcades, bookmakers, fast-food outlets, mobile-phone shops or “adult entertainment” shops.

The problem is it does not give the council power to shut down such shops already in existence, and that’s what’s wrong with O’Connell Street. The word dereliction is frequently thrown at the street, but that is neither fair nor true. Yes, there’s the odd unfortunate 1960s infill building, but most of what was rebuilt after the destruction of 1916 and 1922 remains intact.

Derelict site

There is nothing “wrong” with the physical form of O’Connell Street – it wouldn’t be fair to judge it by its current appearance; from the Spire to Parnell Square is a chaos of Luas construction works, and there is no such thing as a pretty building site.

What’s wrong is how the buildings are used. The Luas line will eventually be completed,the builders will go away, but the fast-food joints and arcades will remain, and the street will return to its disappointing, grotty old self.

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