Putting derelict sites to use

 

ONE OF the most objectionable consequences of the property crash is that it has left Dublin and other urban areas with vast swathes of vacant, abandoned or otherwise derelict sites.

Overly-ambitious, often grandiose, plans to develop these lands are gathering dust in architects’ offices, just as rampant buddleia is colonising the vacant plots. Even O’Connell Street, the capital’s principal thoroughfare, has not been spared the unsightly intrusion of dereliction as a result of the collapse of plans by Chartered Land for a huge retail project centred on the former Carlton cinema and billed as “Dublin Central”; like so many other overblown schemes, it has fallen into the (very full) hands of Nama. Given the recession and the fragile state of retailing in particular, it will take years for such projects to materialise.

Now, Dublin City Council has taken an initiative to put some 200 derelict sites to more productive use, with the aid of planning experts from nine European countries. The emphasis is being placed on large “brownfield” sites, such as the cleared area on Abbey Street Upper – right next to the Luas stop at the Jervis Centre – which Zoe Developments acquired from CIÉ, or the large triangular site owned by the Office of Public Works between Church Street and the Smithfield Luas stop. Or indeed the site of Dublin’s old fish market, near the Four Courts, which was cleared by the council itself and is currently in use for surface parking; this was to have been developed to create a new urban square with the fruit and vegetable market as its centrepiece. But like so many other grands projets, it has “fallen flat on its face”, in the words of council planner John O’Hara.

The gaping holes in Dublin’s fabric are reminiscent of what it was like in the 1980s when urban renewal tax incentives were introduced to encourage development, even in a crudely generic sense. Given that these incentives have expired and the property market is in such a parlous state, the focus must be on realistic short- to medium-term uses of vacant or underused sites - for example, by developing space for start-up businesses, small shops and affordable apartments. “It’s not to say that all big projects are bad, but we need to kick-start the use of the land if confidence is to be restored. And that includes the confidence of the banks,” Mr O’Hara told The Irish Times.

However, Dublin City Council has been reluctant to use the powers available to it under the 1990 Derelict Sites Act. Incredibly, only 36 properties are listed on the council’s Derelict Sites Register – most of them quite small in scale. A spokeswoman explained that the council usually acts on foot of complaints and then “requests” the owner/occupier to carry out works to “make good the derelict aspects of the site”. Only as a “last resort” does it impose an annual levy amounting to 3 per cent of the site’s market value. Instead, it will be offering to write design briefs for the owners of “brownfield” sites in the hope that this will help to resolve the problem. We will see soon enough if such civic indulgence is warranted.

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