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Una Mullally: Dublin offices will become the new ghost estates but the capital has a chance to start again

It was so obvious to anyone living in or near the city centre that it was not going to end well

The Sorting Office development on the corner of Cardiff Lane and Hanover Street East in which Google was going to lease office space.

Not so long ago, Fianna Fáil presided over a housing crash. In the coming months and years, Fine Gael will find its contemporary legacy as the party that presided over an office and commercial property crash.

Offices will become the new ghost estates, hotels will go on sale at knockdown prices, owners of luxury student accommodation will scramble to find new uses for their buildings, and the closure of chain stores, already deemed “the retail apocalypse”, now has a pandemic as an overwhelming catalyst. It’s almost not even worth mentioning the obvious silliness of co-living developments, as they are not the kind of housing people want, need, or will gravitate towards.

The news that Google, one of the biggest players in commercial real estate in Ireland, is walking away from plans to rent another office space in Dublin’s docklands for 2,000 employees will send shockwaves across a city where large office developments are still under construction and at a time when the vast majority of the tech sector here, along with multiple other formerly office-based sectors, is working from home, or otherwise remotely. The penny is dropping that a city full of glass buildings may not be an attractive place to hang out once they are vacant. It also raises questions about who the city was really serving, and why a development that does not add to the city’s social and cultural wealth was prioritised.

Dysfunctional Dublin is something I’ve been writing about for years. It’s interesting now to see this realisation land. It was so obvious to anyone living in or near the city centre (and bear in mind, many of those commentating on the city or indeed planning the city, don’t) that the direction the city was aimlessly trundling in was not going to end well.

Pandemic or no pandemic, frustrations about the high cost of living, the rental crisis, the homelessness crisis, the homogeny of design and architecture, the abundance of large office blocks for American tech companies, the co-working spaces (not so great in a pandemic), the closure of cultural spaces, the incessant hotel-building, the radical redesigning of familiar streetscapes to fit soulless temporary housing such as purpose-built student accommodation that literally shut out existing communities, the opening of generic chain bars and restaurants, a new wave of emigration of artists, are a plague on the soul of the city.

So, now what? The “ghost town” narrative of Dublin in the Covid-era is somewhat overplayed. There are plenty of inventive and resilient independent businesses, such as independent stores, cafés and restaurants, that make certain parts of the capital a pleasant place to be. But a layer has also been stripped away. With the bustle and the tourists gone, never before in this century has the destitution and vulnerability of many who occupy our city centre been so exposed. There is now no hiding the poverty and addiction that is so sadly part of many people’s lives.

The city would have been much more resilient had there been any serious effort to respond to the housing needs of so many people. It would be able to bounce back far quicker if people who call the city home are able to compete with the global capital that pulled buildings out from under those who are actually invested in the cultural and social fabric of the city. It would not look so bizarre and threadbare, had the needs and futures of our urban communities - from Ringsend to the Liberties, from Summerhill to Smithfield - been prioritised over tourists, transient international students, and tech.

The gleaming glass of the docklands now holds a mirror up to the disproportionate reliance on FDI, a model which is increasingly cracking, despite the bumps in the corporate tax take. There is at least another year of working from home for many, if not longer. Many of those tech workers will not be in Dublin. Many are already working remotely elsewhere in Ireland; others from European locations which are more desirable places to spend time in and where the cost of living is cheaper’. Dublin, on the other hand, has been hollowed out in recent years as the entire ecosystem of the city became geared towards a transience and a shininess that excluded many Dubliners.

If you pump a city full of things that the people who live there don’t want, you are creating cracks within its infrastructure which become chasms when the earthquake comes. The direction of Dublin was not an accident. It was designed.

Yet we are now presented with a fantastic opportunity, not just to reset the nation’s capital, but to enrich and value our independent towns and villages across the country, which are suddenly looking a hell of a lot more attractive to Jackeens as the Flight of the Dubs continues.

In this reset, we must imagine and create Dublin as an attractive place to be, not just a place to commute to, or as a playground for tourists. While Fianna Fáil allowed developers and builders to scatter apartment blocks and housing estates across the country in the wrong places, Fine Gael opened the door to a tsunami of commercial development that has nothing to do with the livability of the city, and everything to do with global investment funds making money.

That was never going to end well. But it can start again. The inevitable abundance of empty office floors offers ample opportunities to inject the city with something different, something exciting. It is not enough to relegate the creative and cultural use of buildings to “meanwhile use”.

We need to design a cultural capital and a capital of culture. We need to design and plan a city that is pleasant to live in, that is attractive to visit, where its residents and the rest of Ireland are emotionally invested in and proud of, with a thriving nightlife and a buzzing underground. Those things did emerge during the last recession, and they were then thwarted. That cannot happen again. We need to stop building a city on risk, and start building one with resilience.

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