Difficulties with College Green plan all too predictable

Opposition to plaza from Dublin Bus and chamber of commerce always evident

Architect images for the proposed College Green civic space: An Bord Pleanála has cancelled the hearing on the €10 million plaza project.

Architect images for the proposed College Green civic space: An Bord Pleanála has cancelled the hearing on the €10 million plaza project.

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Dublin city boss Owen Keegan is annoyed. Worse than that, he’s very disappointed. His friends in Dublin Bus and Dublin Chamber of Commerce have let him down.

He thought they were all on the same team, that they shared his vision for a broad, beautiful new civic space in the heart of the city where the likes of the Obamas, or the Pope, or Bono, and whoever city councillors might like to give or take honours to and from, could be feted; where citizens and tourists and comely maidens could frolic; and where the new Luas Cross City could run efficiently, all unmolested by the internal combustion engine.

It turns out that they’re not on the same page. By Keegan’s own reckoning, the city’s largest business representative organisation and the city’s largest mover of people have changed their tunes. Dublin Bus and the chamber let on that they were all for the creation of a pedestrian and cyclist-only plaza at College Green, but it was all a sham.

An Bord Pleanála is to hold a public hearing on the plaza plans to assist it in determining whether the council should be allowed pedestrianise (and cyclistise) College Green. The hearing was to take place next week, but in a move which has become a depressingly familiar aspect of this project, the hearing has been postponed.

Keegan said this week that the city can’t wait for a new hearing, raising the prospect of unilateral action by the council ranging from stopping buses using the Luas lines and banning taxis and cars from the area.

‘Socially regressive’

Ahead of the postponed hearing, Dublin Bus made a submission to the board, branding the council’s proposal “socially regressive”.

It said banning buses from driving through College Green from Dame Street would result in “excessive distances and walking times” for city centre-bound passengers. This would have the greatest effect on passengers from areas of “higher concentrations of social disadvantage, thereby imposing an unintended socially regressive impact on already disadvantaged communities”, it said.

The chamber agrees with this view. It has submitted to the planning board that banning buses would “weaken the attractiveness of the bus in the eyes of the commuter”. It was, it said, “vital” that College Green continued to function as a “transport artery” after the plaza was built. Which is in essence contrary to the whole idea of a pedestrian plaza.

Keegan said not only were these submissions “very, very disappointing”, they were “very, very surprising”.

Really? These anti-plaza positions were new to him?

Neither organisation was ever a massive cheerleader for the project. Dublin Bus has never been keen on measures which restrict its movement around the city centre. When Keegan first mooted the idea of restricting buses in College Green in this newspaper in December 2015, the company reacted swiftly, saying: “This is a strategic corridor not only for the new Luas Cross City line but for public transport. Dublin Bus is the largest public transport provider in the country and it’s crucial therefore that our customers are accommodated on what is the quickest route through the city centre.”

It is true that, the following April, Dublin Bus head of operations Donal Keating was present at the media event to unveil the plaza plans, but he appeared like a man backed into a corner, saying, not exactly fulsomely, when asked if he was chipper about buses being removed from the area: “Given the complexity of what has to be done here, I can see why this option was chosen.”

Change of heart

He has explained away his change of heart recently: “I wouldn’t entirely agree that we changed our tune. But we looked at all of the issues and we put forward some suggestions as to what we think might be a better way of operating. Some people are looking at that and saying we’ve objected to the College Green plaza – and I suppose it’s a way of putting it.”

The chamber says its support was always “qualified”. In May 2016, the month after the plans were unveiled it said it was broadly supportive of the proposals “provided that the changes do not negatively impact on congestion in the wider city”.

It recommended at the time that “modelling” be undertaken to “ascertain the best/worst/median case scenarios for all areas of the city within the M50”.

The fact that there is opposition to the plaza plan, and the fact some organisations may have become spooked the closer it came to being a reality, should be no surprise to anyone at all, least of all Keegan, now council chief executive, but formerly director of traffic for the city.

If this was an easy win, it would have been done years ago, or at the very least at the same time as the Luas works. But Dublin City Council hates making tough decisions.

For more than a decade, the council has been talking about banning at the very least the private car if not buses from College Green, but time after time has lost its nerve, taking piecemeal measures, largely because of opposition from city business interests.

The bother of this separate An Bord Pleanála process could have been avoided if the plaza had been incorporated into the design for the Luas, as it was always clear there were going to be traffic conflicts at College Green once it started running.

But that’s where it now lies. The board will now hear from up to 70 parties on their views of the proposals, some for but many against, including several which want taxis as well as buses to remain in College Green before handing down its decision. Keegan will just have to hope his vision finds more favour with the board than with his former friends.

Olivia Kelly is Dublin Correspondent

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