What do you do with an unfinished estate?


The architect of Elm Park development, Merritt Bucholz, says there are many different uses for the largely empty development

If the National Asset Management Agency wanted to realise some return from Bernard McNamara’s Elm Park development in Dublin 4, in the short term, they could do worse than hire it out as a film set.

More than one of the six long glass buildings reaching eight storeys high would make a convincing airport terminal. Suspended on stilts others could even be a believable ocean liner. The whole development, empty and almost silent, would work as the set of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic thriller.

Fanciful perhaps, but, the scheme’s architect Merritt Bucholz says the possibilities for what he describes as a “mini city” are boundless.

“A building has no idea what it is. Apartment, office, hospital, hotel these are just words we apply. Even a church doesn’t necessarily stay a church; it can become a nightclub.”

All of these, apart from the church/nightclub, were part of the original design of the scheme. The 14.5 acre site near the Tara Towers Hotel on the Merrion Road was bought in early 2001 from the Religious Sisters of Charity for about £36 million.

The massive development, more than 102,193 sq m of space, included more than 300 apartments, in two blocks at the back of the development, divided by a swimming pool and leisure centre; 30,658 sq m of offices in three linear blocks in the centre of the site; and an eight-storey hotel and private hospital at the front.

In June 2008 the development won a Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland award, but by September that year the apartments had been discounted by 20 per cent and the developer was offering interest-free loans of up to 30 per cent of the sale price.

Within two years the development had fallen into the control of the National Assets Management Agency (Nama) and subsequently its receivers. Now the hospital/hotel development which fronts onto Merrion Road lies empty, as do two of the office blocks. The middle block of offices is occupied by insurer Allianz.

Parts of the two apartment blocks are occupied. Although the building which was to contain the swimming pool was constructed, the pool was never installed and behind the wraparound plastic image of happy swimmers can be seen bags of cement and builders’ equipment.

Earlier this year the possibility of a new lease of life for the estate emerged. Nama offered it as a possible site for the new children’s hospital. While this offer was not taken up, it emerged last May that negotiations were ongoing to transfer the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street in Dublin to the site. It appears this plan has also been shelved.

Bucholz says he often thinks about new uses for the complex. “Pretty much every day something occurs to me. We should think about newer models of living and working; combining living, studying and working. The landscape is a big garden, it could be productive use growing things, or for recreation and sport activities or concerts.”

“The project was designed as a low energy project. It’s very thin, easy to ventilate . . . these things are embedded in its DNA. It’s designed for human use, for human occupation . . . Four years is a very short time in the life of a building, one has to be patient.” 

Case Studies: Living in an unfinished estate

1 'It's nice, it's modern. Everything is new and it's just handy'

Anthony O’Riordan (21) from Cork is studying arts at UCD. He lives with his sister on the fourth floor in a two-bedroom apartment

“My sister found it but we both really like it. It looks great. It’s close to UCD, and to my sister’s work. There’s a bus into town every five minutes.”

It’s so quiet, he says, that days can go by when he doesn’t see another resident. “Sometimes you see people going in and out but not much and I couldn’t say I know any of them.”

Despite the emptiness, O’Riordan is not uneasy about coming home at night. “There is always a guard on, so you would never feel nervous.”

It suits his lifestyle and he says it is probably the sort of place most students would want.

2 'I like the area, but notice there are a lot of empty apartments'

Aisling Curtin (26) originally from Kildare, is a Montessori teacher in Dún Laoghaire. She has been living with her boyfriend on the 5th floor of the first block since January

“It’s really nice. I like the area. But you do notice that there are a lot of empty apartments. At night you don’t see many lights on.” Curtin knows no one in the complex.

The rent is “slightly more expensive” than in the city centre, but the apartment is superior to anything else she viewed. “It’s a one bedroom but it doesn’t feel boxy, and the finish is nice and all the appliances are top of the range. There’s a really large balcony, which was nice during the summer.”

“I wouldn’t buy any apartment and I find it unusual that there are families here. There are no little areas for children to play . . .”

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