Frank McDonald: Dublin’s character is threatened by high-rise plans

Councillors should oppose a city project that would put the capital’s human scale at risk

An aerial view of Dublin city. File photograph: Frank Miller

An aerial view of Dublin city. File photograph: Frank Miller

 

Dublin is still fortunate to have a relatively low-rise skyline, giving the city an intimate human scale that most visitors find charming. Indeed, it is remarkable that none of the boom-time proposals for high-rise buildings actually materialised.

I was never a cheerleader for “skyscrapers”, fearing that crazed notions of a “Manhattan on the Liffey” – as imagined in 2007 by the Progressive Democrats (remember them?) – would turn a quite distinctive city into something generic or anonymous.

Exceptions could be made for high-rise clusters in the vicinity of major public transport hubs, such as around Heuston, Connolly and Tara Street railway stations, and there might also have been an argument for a couple of towers in Docklands.

But I could see no real merit in the view that Dublin needed to “go up” in order to achieve a higher density of urban living. To me, it seemed clear that this worthy objective could be attained by working with what we have, rather than against it.

The most environmentally sustainable way to increase urban density is to raise the height to five or six residential storeys.

At this height, European-style densities of 160-200 housing units per hectare could readily be achieved.

But Dublin’s essential character is now under threat again, this time from an almost Orwellian use of language in the draft city development plan, which councillors will debate over four consecutive days, starting at the end of this month.

The draft plan, which would run from 2016 to 2022, earmarks four areas for “high- rise” buildings (Docklands, Heuston, Connolly, George’s Quay), nine that would have “mid-rise” buildings while the rest would be “low-rise”.

Georgian house

This would be double the height of a typical Georgian house, which has defined Dublin’s scale for 250 years.

The proposal is to change the definition of low-rise for different areas of the city; if this is approved by city councillors, it would pave the way for buildings of up to 28m in the inner city, between the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal.

Yet in Frankfurt, which has much taller buildings than Dublin, even 20m (66ft) is classified as high and anything exceeding that can only be built in areas zoned for high-rise schemes.

In Toronto, which also has skyscrapers, anything over four storeys is high.

The current Dublin City Development Plan 2011-2017 permits office blocks of up to 28m in “low-rise” areas, and the planners’ rationale for extending this to housing is to guard against the city ending up with a whole lot of incoherent streetscapes.

Definition

“Permitting an even greater number of buildings to rise to 28m would not appear to solve the problem,” says Valerin O’Shea, a voluntary member of the council’s strategic policy committee on planning and property development.

The most alarming outcome, she suggests, is that the plan as drafted could pave the way for an even more detrimental outcome, with “large-scale demolition of low-rise buildings and replacement with buildings of up to twice the Georgian height.

By providing for heights of 28m nearly everywhere in the inner city, the floodgates will be opened to property owners who may well feel that they should maximise the development potential of any site and seek to build to 28m.”

Ian Lumley, An Taisce’s heritage officer, goes further, saying that Dublin city councillors are facing a historic decision, choosing whether or not to accede to the persuasion of city planning officials and agree to transform Dublin into a high-rise city.

On the other hand, as he says, councillors could “recognise that the resulting irreversible damage to the character of the city is totally unnecessary and, in fact, unsustainable, when optimum densities can be achieved at under 20m”.

Lumley and O’Shea are not suggesting that vertically elongated Georgian houses would replace all the real ones in Merrion Square, as no protected structures are threatened by the proposed change. But unlisted historic buildings would be.

The decision is entirely a matter for councillors, and it goes to the heart of what kind of city Dublin will become when property developers get around to building more apartments for sale or rental, thus helping to relieve the current housing emergency.

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