Ruined Dublin skyline will be Minister for Housing’s only legacy

Tara Street 22-storey tower has gained approval but it lacks residential space

Towering new structure will throw part of the Custom House’s southern facade into shadow on winter afternoons.

Towering new structure will throw part of the Custom House’s southern facade into shadow on winter afternoons.

 

During the last property boom, it was An Bord Pleanála – then chaired by John O’Connor, a former assistant secretary-general in the Department of the Environment – that held the line against overblown plans for high-rise buildings in Dublin by refusing planning permission for many of these schemes.

By approving plans for a 22-storey tower on Tara Street, the appeals board – now chaired by Dave Walsh, a former assistant secretary-general of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government – has overridden Dublin City Council’s decision to turn down a scheme that its planners had firmly rejected.

The most significant change in the interim was the promulgation last December by Minister for Housing and Planning Eoghan Murphy of new planning guidelines on building heights in Dublin and elsewhere. They effectively abandon any restrictions on how tall a building can be, largely irrespective of its urban setting.

Indeed, the first reason cited by An Bord Pleanála in its decision to permit Tanat, a company controlled by property developer Johnny Ronan, to proceed with the erection of what will be Dublin’s tallest building (at 90m) referred to Murphy’s guidelines, which are now national policy, overriding any height limitations in local development plans.

Last October, Dublin City Council’s planners decided to refuse permission for the proposed tower on the basis that it would have a “significantly detrimental impact, due to its scale and bulk, on the setting and character of the Custom House, the River Liffey Conservation Area and the O’Connell Street and Environs Architectural Conservation Area”.

‘Detrimental impact’

An earlier plan designed for Tanat by HJL Architects for a very similar 22-storey tower on the site, which adjoins Tara Street railway station, was also rejected by the council’s planners and by An Bord Pleanála on appeal for the same reason. But the imminence of Murphy’s free-for-all building-height guidelines emboldened them to try again, and this time they won.

An earlier plan designed for Tanat by HJL Architects for a very similar 22-storey tower on the site was also rejected

Even though city planners had concluded that the latest scheme would have “a significant and detrimental visual impact on a number of important views and vistas” from College Green and Trinity College as well as a number of other locations, the appeals board claimed it would “integrate satisfactorily . . . with the established character of the historic city centre”.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance Eoghan Murphy has said no one is expecting a soft Brexit. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Minister for Housing and Planning Eoghan Murphy: New planning guidelines on building heights in Dublin and elsewhere effectively abandon any restrictions on how tall a building can be, largely irrespective of its urban setting. File photograph: Cyril Byrne

It went on to say that the tower, which will dwarf Liberty Hall (at 59m), “would not have a significant and detrimental impact on any important views and vistas within the city” from any of the areas cited by Dublin City Council’s planners, including the Liffey quays, College Green, Trinity College and the northside Georgian quarter, and that it would even “enhance the skyline”.

In taking such a diametrically opposed view of Tanat’s bold plan, the appeals board went so far as to say it “would not seriously injure . . . the character and appearance of protected structures” – even though Dublin City architect Ali Grehan had pointed out that it would actually throw part of the Custom House’s southern facade into shadow on winter afternoons.

The potential for Georgian Dublin to be designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site 'will be compromised'

Indeed, she warned that the potential for Georgian Dublin to be designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site “will be compromised by the proposal” due to its “adverse effect on the setting and status of Custom House, downplaying the significance of its north facade, understating the importance of the building and the impact of the proposed structure on its profile”.

‘Historic space’

Recommending that permission should be refused, Grehan noted that the impact on the Trinity College campus of the “massing and design quality of the proposed building . . . results in an unacceptably negative impact on the skyline of the most intact historic space in Dublin”. But here again, An Bord Pleanála discounted such downsides because the Minister’s guidelines take precedence.

Ostensibly introduced to promote high-rise residential development as a means of dealing with Ireland’s housing emergency, the guidelines will do nothing of the sort. Instead, what will be foisted on Dublin and other cities is likely to be random eruptions of tall buildings consisting of offices, hotels or student housing as these are the most profitable to build now.

The Tara Street scheme contains not a single square metre of residential space, but rather a relatively slender office tower rising from a six-storey base consisting of a hotel, and topped by a restaurant that will, inevitably, enjoy panoramic views over the city. And thanks to Eoghan Murphy, it will be followed by even more audacious schemes to change Dublin’s skyline.

The city’s human scale, which has always been one of its most admired attributes, is in danger of being lost as it becomes more like Pittsburgh or anywhere. No wonder An Taisce has branded the appeals board’s decision as “a catastrophic error which undoes decades of planning control in Dublin and will irrevocably damage the city’s irreplaceable character”.

Frank McDonald is a former Environment Editor of The Irish Times

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