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A changing skyline

Dublin’s skyline looks set for profound changes over the coming years as buildings grow ever higher in response to increasing demand for commercial and residential space

‘If you look at Dublin and compare it to other big cities, there is definitely scope for enhancing that skyline but it has to be done in a quality manner.’ Photograph: iStock

‘If you look at Dublin and compare it to other big cities, there is definitely scope for enhancing that skyline but it has to be done in a quality manner.’ Photograph: iStock

 

Skyscrapers have been a part of the skyline of cosmopolitan cities around the world for many years, but Dublin, a Georgian city in aesthetic, has up until now shied away from tall buildings. Mainly because our planning laws did not allow for them but with a change in regulation last year, allowing for an increase in height, it has opened up a national debate around tall buildings.

The Tara Tower at George’s Quay, a 22-storey building that is due to be constructed by property developer Johnny Ronan, was given the green light by An Bord Pleanála in April of this year, after several rejections by Dublin City Council. People from the business world, conservation and academia have weighed in on either side of the debate but the question remains, are buildings of height now a necessity to help solve our housing crisis?

The Urban Development and Building Heights Guidelines, published by the Department of Housing at the end of 2018, was drafted to set “a new and more responsive policy and regulatory framework for planning the growth and development of our cities and towns upwards, rather than ever outwards”.

The National Planning Framework drafted by Government identifies compact urban growth as one of 10 key National Strategic Outcomes for the next 20-plus years.

“Securing more compact forms of future development is of benefit to our economy, our environment and our citizens as it provides a sustainable solution to urban sprawl. There is a clear need to create more mixed, more dynamic and more sustainable cities and towns that carefully employ the delivery of increased building heights to tackle issues with urban sprawl,” a spokesperson for the Department of Housing said.

“In determining planning policy and making planning decisions around appropriate building heights, the planning process has to strike a careful balance between enabling strategic long-term sustainable development, while ensuring the highest standards of urban design, architectural quality and place-making outcomes. The Minister is satisfied that the guidelines concerned are necessary and appropriate to give clear context and direction to the overall requirement to promote increased density and building height in appropriate locations within our urban centres,” the spokesperson continued.

But with the change in guidelines, a new precedent has been set, one that could alter the capital’s skyline forever, but for the better remains to be seen.

Strongly held views

There are strongly held views around this from both sides, Pat Lucey, president of the Construction Industry Federation, says – but it’s important to challenge boundaries when “new, important inputs are received”, he says, referring to the recent Ronan application.

“If you look at Dublin and compare it to other big cities, there is definitely scope for enhancing that skyline but it has to be done in a quality manner,” he says.

“Johnny Ronan has a formidable track record of delivering large projects and he always seems to assemble a high-quality team of professionals to develop the concepts he has and people like him seem to have a flair for knowing what people want because they have to sell it afterwards, so if he puts something on the table, we should definitely talk about it,” Lucey adds.

Ronan’s tower does not contain housing units but will comprise commercial space – offices and a hotel.

Construction activity is strong in the offices sector at the moment, with 4.9 million square feet of space currently on site across the city and suburbs, Hannah Dwyer, director and head of research at JLL Ireland, says.

“This represents 12 per cent of total Dublin office stock. Supply is therefore steady for offices, with a piecemeal stream of good-quality buildings being released to the market. We are forecasting for this to continue, with pipeline space expected to come to the market in response to demand from occupiers. Demand remains solid and is mostly driven by expansion activity of existing FDI companies, who already have a presence in Ireland and are responding to strong market performance,” she says.

But while activity is strong in the commercial sector, a lack of housing stock is a major issue in Dublin, so going up looks like an easy solution. But is it?

“Making best use of space is not something we’ve been terribly good at over recent decades, which has contributed to the sprawl of the city ever outwards. The current accommodation shortage is impacting at every level, with a lack of availability across the board from social housing through to family homes and also premium rental accommodation. It’s important we focus on addressing the supply issues at all these levels,” Graeme McQueen, head of communications at Dublin Chamber of Commerce, says.

“It’s absolutely not about height for height’s sake. We don’t want to see tall buildings all over the city, but rather where they are appropriate and complementary to the existing city. We’re certainly not advocating for multi-storey buildings in the heart of Georgian Dublin, for example. But there are many areas where taller buildings are suitable – George’s Quay, the Docklands and Grand Canal Dock. We need to focus on building more densely within the M50, particularly along and around good existing and planned transport links such as close to our Luas lines, in the vicinity of our railway stations and along the route of proposed developments such as MetroLink,” he adds.

But with a long-held belief by many in Ireland that as their families grow and their life situations change, they will require much more space and houses with three-plus bedrooms and gardens, will they be swayed to live in high-rise accommodation, in an urban setting?

Not if outdoor amenities and other requirements are not there to meet their needs, Pat Lucey says.

‘Quality of life’

“You have to create quality of life in city spaces so that people aren’t afraid to have families there and that means taking care with the public realm, and looking at transportation, educational and medical facilities nearby. People might have grown up with a lot of space around them and they feel they can’t do without it, so it’s about changing a mindset.

“However, if the public realm is good, the convenience they gain from being in the city centre can very often overcome the prejudice they have about wanting space. Take for example people who are getting older and live in the country but for some reason they sell up and move to town. They never would have done that earlier in life but they now revel in the convenience.

“We have no tradition of attracting people into the urban areas, it’s about pushing them into the suburbs, so we have to create opportunity and it’ll work for city,” he adds.

However, there are many who don’t see it that way and lecturer in social policy at Maynooth University Dr Rory Hearne says the debate on skyscrapers in Dublin must begin with the question of “what type of city do we want”?

“Most people are now in agreement that we need ‘liveable, affordable and sustainable’ cities. This means cities where people of all ages and groups can live a quality life.

“A house or apartment needs to be of sufficient space and light, and fit into the local area to enable people living there be part of the community. These are vital to people’s physical and mental health and over all wellbeing. Buildings of 10 or 20 or 30 storeys do not give this. They alienate their inhabitants from their neighbours and surrounding environment,” he says.

“Skyscrapers benefit the owners of land across the city, as the land value becomes hugely inflated if planning is given for ultra-high-rise buildings and they benefit the developers and financiers. Dublin has the potential to become a living city for all of us and our environment. To achieve that requires to stop the ultra-high-rise tenement pods and for the planners to insist on buildings that provide a sustainable high-quality home in a community. The State has massive land banks in Dublin. It should be leading the way in building well-designed, rental-secure, affordable, sustainable homes for all incomes, like public housing in Vienna.”

An Taisce has been vocal in its opposition to Ronan’s Tara Tower, and Ian Lumley of the organisation says it is a “major mistake that will be regretted”. He also says high-rise buildings are not the answer to the city’s housing crisis, but the governing body for protected sites says it has no issue with well-planned high rise in the commercial sector, that does not affect Dublin’s historic city centre.

In relation to the Tara Tower, he says. “It changes the aspect of that neighbourhood, it is dwarfed by it. The footprint of the building on George’s Quay is many times that of Liberty Hall, so views from the river and Trinity will be obstructed. It’s the wrong building in the wrong place,” he says.

There is a place for well-planned commercial high rise in the Dockland’s areas, Lumley says, and that would apply to Cork and Limerick equally. However, in terms of residential high rise, anything over 12 or 15 stories “has nothing to do with solving the housing crisis”.

“Looking to London, buildings of this height are generally used for executive housing, occupied by corporate workers,” and he envisages a similar situation in Dublin Docklands.

So what’s the alternative and what other solutions should be examined?

Inspiration

Lumley says northern European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen should be looked to for inspiration.

“In Copenhagen, they have created attractive neighbourhoods in the six- to eight-storey category, and that level of height can be achieved in a well-planned way. But even eight storeys would be inappropriate in a lot of older residential areas of Dublin. Context is important,” he says.

“In Amsterdam, as you move from medieval to 19th century, the scale gets larger but it’s very harmonious. It’s about creating integrated areas, including opportunities for social interaction; where there is transport connectivity; it’s good environmentally in terms of energy supply and performance; management of waste is good and all of those aspects are carefully integrated, which some of the northern European cities have set leadership in and we have a lot to learn from them,” he says.

However, many still argue that taller buildings have their place and must also be part of the solution.

Dwyer says the increase in heights of buildings in “certain areas” could help to deliver greater volumes of supply.

“This is regardless of whether it is apartments, multi-family, social housing, student housing or co-living. All of these sectors are faced with significant under-supply, with no real sign of a quick solution to this issue. If a developer can deliver a greater volume of units within the same floor area by building higher, the economics for development improve, albeit with taller buildings that cost more to build. With site costs and construction costs increasing, this subsequently helps to improve the viability, and with some schemes struggling to make economic sense for development, this could help to balance out the development equation.

“Dublin is historically a Georgian city and we want to retain this traditional character and identity. In this regard, development height restrictions within the more traditional parts of the city would help to retain this. On the other hand, the Dublin Docklands area has experienced significant regeneration in the last few decades, and we have already started to see some higher buildings delivered here in the last few months. Whilst we don’t want or indeed need the scale of buildings as per, say Canary Wharf, this part of the city does feel like the natural location for higher-rise buildings to be permitted. We have already seen this in Capital Dock and The Exo Building in the south and north docks respectively. High rise needs to be in locations such as this, respecting the conservation areas of the city,” she says.

It is important to note that high rise doesn’t necessarily mean 15-20-storey buildings. An increase in height from six to nine storeys can provide greater opportunities to resolve the residential accommodation crisis too, she adds.

Dublin Chamber agrees that taller buildings must remain on the table. “Dublin has continually grown in height over the past 200 years. If we get it right, taller buildings can help contribute to a bright future for Dublin. We need to focus more on ensuring good design of our modern buildings, allowing the architects of today to put their stamp on the city,” McQueen says.