Planning free-for-all has developers reaching for the sky

Does Dublin want or need projects like Ronan’s 44-story Babylonian tower?

The characteristic human scale of Dublin is now more in peril than at any time in its history, and the same is true of the State’s “second-tier” cities of Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford, as well as numerous smaller towns – all due to ultra-liberal planning guidelines that effectively permit developers to build whatever they like wherever they like.

The mandatory guidelines on building heights imposed by Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy last December have inaugurated an unprecedented free-for-all that looks certain to result in the relatively low-rise skylines of our urban areas being sacrificed on the altar of profit or hubris, with random eruptions of high-rise buildings all over the place.

Already, Murphy’s carte blanche for high-rise – irrespective of what’s in the current Dublin City development plan – has prompted An Bord Pleanála to reverse a previous refusal and grant permission for a 22-storey tower on Tara Street; it will rise to a height of 88 metres, nearly 50 per cent taller than Liberty Hall, casting shadows on the front of the Custom House, James Gandon’s masterpiece from 1791.

The developers behind that scheme, developer Johnny Ronan and his backers, US investment fund Colony Capital, are now floating Project Waterfront, an even more audacious scheme to build the tallest buildings Dublin has ever seen, on a North Wall Quay site between the new Central Bank and the Three Arena. One of these residential towers, festooned in greenery, would be 155 metres high – 35 metres taller than the spindly “stainless” steel Spire in O’Connell Street.


The second tower would be 140 metres high, set at a 45-degree angle to the first, rising above an agglomeration of smaller blocks, with tumbling vertical greenery creating a “hanging gardens” effect. “It will provide Dublin with a very cosmopolitan development, which people will want to come and see because it is totally unique in terms of anything built in Ireland or the UK,” say the architects, HJL.

Architecturally, buildings with “hanging gardens” have been around for a long time, going back to the Hundertwasser Haus in Vienna (1985), MVRDV’s eccentric Dutch pavilion at the Hanover Expo in 2000 and more recent examples such as Jean Nouvel’s One Central Park, in Sydney, and Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale towers in Milan, which are planted with 900 trees, 5,000 shrubs, and 11,000 flowering plants on all levels.

Sheer chutzpah

What distinguishes Project Waterfront, however, is the sheer chutzpah of Ronan and Colony Capital in putting forward such an enormous Babylonian project for Dublin. They bought the 1.86-hectare site, one of last parcels of development land in the North Lotts, for more than €180 million last October and are naturally determined to maximise its value by reaching for the sky.

Indeed, that’s part of the reason why the price was so high: it included the “hope value” of aggrandisement. After all, the Minister had flagged his intention of getting rid of “ridiculous restrictions” on high-rise development in Dublin in June 2017, just three months after taking over housing and planning. Plus, the promoters already had sight of his draft guidelines three months before concluding their purchase.

The price they paid for the site, once occupied by Tilestyle and Tedcastle’s coal yard, works out at more than €40 million per acre, which means that there’s an inbuilt incentive to aim higher than already-approved proposals for offices (up to 10 storeys high) and residential (up to 12 storeys). And so, they started preparing the ground for the mega-scheme that was presented recently to Dublin City Council’s senior planners.

Anonymous half-page advertisements placed in newspapers contrasted the low-rise scale of buildings in Dublin with the Eiffel Tower in Paris, among other landmarks. A Red-C opinion poll was commissioned by the Ronan Real Estate Group, which found that more than 80 per cent of the 509 respondents favoured taller buildings in Dublin, particularly in Docklands, and believed height restrictions should be lifted.

But pursuit of this staggering scheme would involve driving a deep wedge through the city council’s Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) masterplan for the North Lotts, which was approved by An Bord Pleanála in 2014 after extensive public consultation. And it did not envisage a pair of greenery-festooned skyscrapers on the North Wall Quay site, whatever about permitting some high-rise buildings elsewhere.

High-rise guidelines

The SDZ masterplan was intended to provide certainty – for developers and the wider community – as well as a fast-track route to obtain planning permission; if an office, hotel or residential scheme complied with the masterplan, it would almost certainly be approved, with no right of appeal to An Bord Pleanála for third parties. But now, the North Lotts masterplan has been trumped by Murphy’s high-rise guidelines.

The Spencer Place Development Company, which Johnny Ronan and Colony Capital effectively control, took a High Court action against the city council last month, arguing that the Minister’s ultra-liberal guidelines transcend any height limits in the SDZ masterplan – and, therefore, it should be entitled to add two floors to three eight-storey blocks currently under construction at Spencer Place for Salesforce, a US tech company.

The guidelines “take precedence over any conflicting, policies and objectives of development plans, local area plans and strategic development zone planning schemes”, according to the final version issued by Murphy last December. Thus, the masterplan will have to be revised to become “more proactive and more flexible in securing compact urban growth through … increased densities and building heights”.

Paul O’Brien, chairman of HJL Architects maintains that the masterplan was drawn up in the depths of recession (2012) and needs to be reviewed to take account of current market conditions. “Docklands is very flat and needs some punctuation by taller buildings”, he says, adding that the “benchmark” they’ve used for Project Waterfront is the Foster + Partners’ unbuilt U2 tower, which was approved at a height of 150 metres.

Few would disagree that the earlier phase of Docklands development, along Custom House Quay, was a wasted opportunity. Most of the office blocks that line it are only five- or six-storeys high, even though the breadth of the Liffey as it turns into an estuary is much wider than it is along the city centre stretch of the river. A standard building height of eight or nine storeys would have been much more appropriate for this location.

Highly-paid millennials

What’s proposed by Project Waterfront is of a much greater order of magnitude – residential towers of 40 and 45 storeys, containing more than 1,000 apartments, with swimming pools and garden spaces on the upper levels, shops and restaurants at the lower levels, sky bridges, a 200-metre running track, gyms, crazy golf, herb gardens and a range of other goodies, all in a “Work Live Eat Play” environment for highly-paid millennials.

While there is provision for a small proportion of social and affordable housing, most of the residential space in Project Waterfront would be for high-rollers, especially given the huge additional costs of high-rise construction – more lifts, extra fire measures, etc. The rest of the scheme would consist largely of office buildings, where many of the residents might work, which is where “the future world’s high-end development is going”, O’Brien says.

Open-ended pedestrian routes would run through the scheme, with “active frontages” (shops, restaurants bars) at ground level and nearly double the amount of public open space that’s provided for under the North Lotts SDZ masterplan. But even if his “hanging gardens” would be largely invisible from the city’s Georgian core areas, Ronan has thrown down his gauntlet in a direct challenge to the norms of development in Dublin.

His agenda to reach for the sky appeals to a certain constituency in Dublin that wants to see it become a “more global city”, like London or even Singapore. Yet in central Paris, one of the most densely populated urban areas in Europe, the vast majority of its 2.2 million people live in apartments in buildings of six or seven storeys. Thus, it is not necessary to go high to achieve greater density, contrary to what many Dubliners seem to believe.

The view from the bridge – in this case, the East Link – of what this new city might look like, as a result of Murphy’s high-rise guidelines, tells it all. The centrepiece, of course, is Project Waterfront. On the left is OMP’s Capital Dock, currently Dublin’s tallest building at 22 storeys, where two-bedroom flats are renting for €3,600 per month. And on the right is Shay Cleary’s boot-like Exo office block that will rise to a height of 17 storeys.

If Project Waterfront gets planning permission, it is likely to establish a new benchmark for soaring heights elsewhere, and not only in Docklands – because it would be cited as a precedent by other developers and their professional consultants. What we can look forward to, therefore, is a future of random high-rise buildings popping up all over the place, with no design reviews (as in London) or any consideration of composing a skyline.

Are we ready for the new Dublin?

Limerick wants another “landmark” high-rise building

In Limerick, it’s the local authority itself that’s reaching for the sky with plans for a 15-storey office block at Bank Place as a key element of redeveloping the so-called Opera Site, opposite the old Custom House, where the internationally important Hunt Museum is now located.

Limerick City and County Council has submitted a masterplan for the redevelopment of the site fronting Abbey River, to An Bord Pleanála. And extraordinarily at this time of housing emergency, it includes only minimal provision for residential, amounting to 4 per cent of the scheme.

By contrast, two-thirds of the proposed development consists of offices, with the rest made up of restaurants and bars, a 57-room “apart-hotel” and the renovation of historic buildings such as the Granary. But the proposed office tower is undoubtedly its most controversial element.

According to AECOM, the council’s consultants, the height of this tower “reflects the ambitions set out in the Limerick Spatial Plan and creates an important statement at Bank Place addressing Abbey River and the Shannon beyond, whilst respecting the scale of the existing historic city.”

Limerick wanted another “landmark” high-rise building, to match the Clarion Hotel and Riverpoint office block, which both face the Shannon, and AECOM claims that it “achieves a delicate balance” between existing buildings and the need for an “ambitious and modern vision” of the city.

However, there can be no doubt that the proposed tower would stand out incongruously between a fine Georgian terrace and the Granary building. It would also compete with the 14th century tower of St Mary’s Cathedral, founded in 1168 by Domnall Mór Ua Briain, the last king of Munster.

The University of Limerick’s School of Architecture was so appalled by the virtual absence of housing in the masterplan that its fourth year students presented their own counter-proposals to make much better use of the “Opera Site”. The deadline for submissions to An Bord Pleanála is May 31st.