Faltering high-rise agenda

O’Connell St ski slope Digital Hub Proposal   George’s Quay

Roadshows

So after it got nowhere with its Croke Park Conference (where its by-now infamous Maximising the City’s Potential document, the dullest, most important document since Lisbon – didn’t even get discussed), Dublin City Council decided to see if it could get its high-rise and high-density strategy agreed by local communities around Dublin. Daithi Doolan was delivering on his promise.

Stop 1 was Pearse St and the “South East Area” a few weeks ago. 60 odd people and most of the local councilors made it and unfortunately for management they got no support whatsoever for their benighted document. Daithi Doolan, whose website notes that opposition to high-rise is one of his selling points started off, as usual, astride the fence on the issue, concerned not to conform to stereotype in the presence of city management whose goodwill is important to his chairing of the Planning SPC.

Rob Fennelly, Planning Information Officer for Dublin City Council, misinformed the meeting that the document just put limits on existing height standards: it was all about shape and certainty. Josephine Henry rose to give the opposite viewpoint on behalf of the Community sector but didn’t seem to have read it and generally agreed with Mr Fennelly. She explained the planning process but the meeting wasn’t supposed to be about that.

Then DCC had proposed forming nice groups so DCC officials could dominate the proceedings but lo the residents opposed this and, although Mary Freehill and Daithi Doolan initially were reluctant, ultimately Aibhlin McCrann who was facilitating the meeting ran with the heated views of residents. It was all coming unstuck.

It remained for residents to show that the document actually does effect MAJOR changes to the current policy, that in reality it did not propose a cap at 8 storeys in the city centre and that areas, including Ballsbridge and Ringsend in the “Outer City” were fair game for high-rise. Poor Rob Fennelly and his cohorts of colleagues sat tight and the truth had prevailed.

A unanimous vote opposed Maximising and it was noted that adopting a Local Area Plan would conduce to good planning and proper consultation. The meeting closed. It had been worse than Croke Park for Maximising!

Stop 2 was June 9 and Ballymun. A meeting of around 40 from all over the Northern Fringes of the city again voted clearly against Maximising. Only two voted in favour. And one was Councillor Bill Tormey of FG who is in favour of high-rise provided it is accompanied by good facilities. Cllr Bill Tormey is famous for taking a consistent stance agains “whingers” who get in the way of progress.

Croke Park hosted 60-70 north cityers on 19 June. The meeting started off with warm words from Christie Burke and Daithi Doolan of Sinn Fein who were concerned to keep order and obtain consensus respectively. Then there was a generally accurate presentation by John O’Hara for the City Council and fairly woolly talk by Josephine Henry of CTA on behalf of “the Community” – both of which inaccurately portrayed the document as in some way “strategic” when it is in fact permissive. Cllr Emer Costello made the useful point that the document is not rooted in any sort of research and Cllr Tom Stafford thinks there are enough people in Dublin – and appeared a little surprised when not cheered to the rafters for this wisdom – but unusually for a FFer is unambiguously against high-rise and thinks the Docklands Authority the most undemocratic he’s come across. Beleaguered city officials had their eyeballs rooted to the roofs of their heads. A vote was called and only one earnest young man voted in favour of the document. Tom Stafford’s press release was already moist.

And finally on June 23 80-90 residents attended a fairly angry meeting, annoyed that their pro-active views were not being addressed, and at the 16-storey element at the proposed Northside Shopping Centre development.

The City Council’s in trouble now because the residents mood was against high density as well as against high-rise.

The question is, as with Lisbon, can they make us vote again.

In March Dublin City Council hosted its first conference on the Maximising  document. I went along, though I had no ticket, and was able to slip in to share the excitement of 400 of the city’s planning movers over this opaque document that is intended to alter the character of our city for good or bad, without ever being understood by the citizenry.

The line up of speakers was packed with the usual pro-development and economics-oriented forces with no community, heritage or environmental representation and notional speakers from the social sector who knew nothing of the detail of the Maximising document. Daithi Doolan of Sinn Fein chaired the discusion and though embedded on the fence he may be a sleeping anti-high-rise agent. Certainly he committed to putting the matter before the “Community” before the process was over. Conor Skehan of the DIT gave an address about regional development which he felt represented “speaking the truth to power”. I felt it was less noble: more “leaving planning to the market” (which is the strongest power anyway). He believes growth will take place in the East of Ireland; and the West will stagnate. He had one slide showing how high-rise is less important than high density. It was not enough. He had left Maximising out of his speech. Marc Coleman was next: he is the economics correspondent of Newstalk. He joshed unfunnily about his birthday shared with Stalin and clearly thinks that he’s a bit of a card for being right wing. He also has an offputtingly hiccoughy delivery. Coleman recently produced a badly-written book called something smug like Getting Better and Better in which he shared unending anecdotal views on Ireland in general and planning in particular with the reader. He fails to realise that a lack of favourable reviews was society’s way of telling him his book was unimportant. Instead he seems to think that he can repeat its discarded wisdoms forevermore to serious people. He spoke a lot about the famine and probably does not know the difference between high-rise and high-density, though he’s correctly in favour of the latter. Sean O Laoire, a nice man, who seems like one of his grandparents must have been a Koala, showed us some slides about good urban spaces, on behalf of the RIAI of which he is president. Mick Wallace told us that the developers don’t give back enough to the fucking common good. None of it was about the permissive document that is Maximising. Regional Strategy, social housing, prioritising the public domain, the famine: Yes. Lots of slides of half-interesting Dubliners praising the Corpo with background music: Certainly. But no Maximising. It was the elephant not in the room.

When the last speaker finished we were told that we had ten minutes for questions. I had sat at the front, and asked the first question which was a statement that it was a pity that the environmental and community sectors had been excluded from the platform and that the speakers had not dealt with Maximising – indeed seemed complacently not to have read it. I said it was not clear from the speakers where high-rise would actually take place. I suggested that nearly every area was being targeted and that if you could have a building the height of Liberty Hall on the Carlton site nowhere was safe. Peter Cassells was chairing the morning. He said my question was a statement, which it was, and that he wouldn’t allow my “stunt”. I wonder how much, if anything, he was paid for chairing the event and if he thinks much about planning or just about unions. After that there were a few anodyne questions which the panel didn’t really answer and then it was time for lunch.

At lunch I carried my tray behind the City Manager, John Tierney, who was pleasant and said he would like to meet me. When pushed he admitted to being a little surprised that the speakers who’d had their topic for months had not referred to the relevant document in any illuminating way – or, mostly, at all. It is my belief that they simply failed to do the research rather than being told by City management to keep it general. I discussed my plan for an eco-development in Dundalk. He wants the city to do one in Poolbeg.

Then I was invited by the new city architect, Ali Grehan, who is delightful, to sit with her and a bunch of planners from the CIty and its docklands, including Anthony Abbot King who wrote the City Council’s decision permitting the Clarence. Ali Grehan seems likely to be a big improvement on her predecessor [see blog below on Dublin City Architect] and I hope to meet her again soon. The conversation was animated.I spoke to a lot of city planners and councillors during the day and they were all charming. I think because I’ve been around for so long now they feel they should be pally. I’m really beginning to warm to city officials now and have almost stopped thinking about Kieran Rose.

Then I left to pick up a child, leaving the afternoon workshops to the contented multitude. I’m told it was more of the same.

Maximising

Maximising is an extraordinarily permissive and (in planning terms) dangerous document which can only lose in credibility by having its contents discussed and only gain from waffly discussion of high-rise, high density and affordable homes such as occurred today.

I here mingle An Taisce’s stance (which I compiled) with my own (expressed in a recent article in the Irish Times).

What’s the big deal?

High-density development offers nearly all the benefits of high-rise and many more – without the manifold problems of high-rise. Indeed high-rise militates against high-density.

High-Rise Strategy is Un-planned and Un-Assessed

Maximising is potentially the most damaging document for the city’s fabric ever published. It simply in effect ignores the principal appeal of Dublin which is its human scale. It is really, really unusually bad! The problem is that it’s not drafted to look like a policy and in any event the current policy is a combination of the City Development Plan and another document that was not drafted to look like policy (the DEGW study) which the City Development Plan incorporates.

Maximising is in effect a charter for high-rise in almost every area of the city.

Even the historic city centre is threatened. In any event the City’s planners regularly flout the official City plans e.g. in Ballsbridge and in their facilitation of the current proposal for the Carlton site on O’ Connell St. An Taisce is nervous about any increase in this general permissiveness. An Taisce has won nearly all its appeals to An Bord Pleanala of unplanned high-rise, that breaches City plans.

What should the City Council do?

An Taisce is open to the idea of high-rise in a limited number of locations, primarily areas in Docklands and Heuston. Beyond this An Taisce recommends that the Dublin City Manager initiate a variation to the Dublin City Development to provide that tall buildings, meaning buildings significantly higher than neighbourhood or surrounding buildings, may be considered only following adoption of Local Area Plans which should specifically provide for preservation in full of existing positive local and civic character; and should be prepared only after the fullest consultation and engagement with the public including local residents, public sector agencies, non-governmental agencies, local community groups and commercial and business interests within the area. If possible, local community groups should be afforded reasonable costs for the making of submissions on Local Area Plans.

This mechanism would provide for the proper assessment and consultation that must precede any significant change in the ethos of those parts of the city that may actually benefit (I believe there are some) from high-rise.

Background

More than a decade ago An Taisce – a charity – announced that it would appeal all unplanned high-rise in Dublin City. From Georges Quay to Spencer Dock to Ballsbridge to Smithfield it has been mostly successful in these Bord Pleanala appeals. High-rise has, since 2000, been planned only for Docklands and around Heuston. Outside of these areas An Taisce, mostly through prodigious Kevin Duff, has taken a stringent stance and on at least twenty occasions got Dublin City Council (DCC) decisions overturned – for breaching its own development plan! The pressure for high-rise has been unrelenting for all that time even though communities do not want it.

DCC officials cannot be trusted on height. For years management would overrule the city’s chief professional planner, Pat McDonnell, who took a sceptical stance on high-rise. Since Pat McDonnell was replaced by Dick Gleeson management don’t even have to overrule planners, as those in favour of high-rise are in the ascendant in the planning department too. DCC management and planners are unduly deferential to developers, and do not seem to appreciate that human scale is a big part of the city centre’s international appeal and bolsters our fragile sense of Community. DCC has granted permission for ten tall buildings in the last two years. An Taisce, often alone, made submissions to An Bord Pleanála which, for example, overturned grants of applications for permission for a 16-storey development on the north side of Thomas Street, a 13-storey apartment block at the Tivoli Theatre, a 12-storey residential scheme at School Street and a 13-storey building at Bridgefoot Street. An Taisce is currently involved in other Bord Pleanala appeals including the Arnotts redevelopment plan which involves a 16-storey element, an 11-storey development on Chancery St, a 13-storey development on Merrion Road, and the proposed demolition of most of the Clarence Hotel in favour of an oversailing cybership. DCC is also encouraging a Liberty-Hall-height sky-borne ski-slope structure over the Carlton site on O’Connell St. Inevitably these applications are dressed up in property-supplement-speak as “crystalline”, ‘sculptural”, “breathtaking” and as heralding Ireland’s arrival in the exciting big-time. The reality – as we know from O’Connell Bridge House, Liberty Hall, Georges Quay etc as well as from much of England is that there can be few urban aesthetics as depressing as an unplanned, incoherent skyline.

But DCC officials seem to think if you shovel up any old hokum about e-economies, potential-maximisation or knowledge axes and dress it up as “maturity” you can override all other public goods – including democracy and quality of life. Whose interest does the Management think it serves?

Developers know the DCC is a soft touch. This is why Treasury holdings want their 35 storey hotel to the rear of the Convention Centre to be considered by DCC and not the Docklands Authority (which has actually objected to DCC over the scheme). That is why Manor Park Homes are chancing their arm with first a 51-storey application for Thomas St and now, after rebuff, a 32-storey version. That is why Sean Dunne is trying to get DCC to agree area plans that allow high-rise in Ballsbridge – he knows that without them An Bord Pleanala will overturn the speculative permission DCC has granted him. But City Councillors are not giving their management a free rein. In a major blow to Sean Dunne, among many other speculators, they rejected management’s insidious recent plans to allow height “flexibility”, even in areas where high-rise was not supposed to be allowed.

It remains to be seen how they treat Maximising. For the moment most of them just seem confused. Even the Green party bottled it and made a submission that fails to recognise how damaging the document would be.

Dublin City is probably the only local authority in the State where the elected representatives have a more solid view of good planning than their officials. It is evident that DCC Councillors are increasingly unhappy with the advice from management. Under pressure from their communities we expect Councillors to reject the charter for widespread high-rise that management has recently presented – Maximising the City’s Potential: A Strategy for Intensification and Height (the “new strategy”).

No European capital has successfully superseded an intact low-rise historic core by high-rise. So why in 2008 is Dublin trying to? Our models should be Paris, Rome and Helsinki which have continued to thrive without succumbing to the extreme hypertrophy characteristic in American urbanism. Strict specific limitations on height must be established. We should not repeat the mistakes of London or Belfast, borrowing a pretend modern model which was developed at the turn of the last century in the US.

Height versus Density

We should all be able to agree on density. Dense development tends to serve the common good and the environment by allowing provision of an intensity of amenities and public transport. This is why An Taisce has opposed a lot of one-off-housing in the countryside. All things being equal (which they often are not) high can be good. But it must not interfere with the historic integrity of the city or diminish the amenities for locals. It is also true that high-rise structures are seldom energy efficient and that the vague prospect of high-rise conduces to speculation and associated dereliction. And of course high-density development need not be high-rise. The Georgian Fitzwilliam area is very high-density.

In Dublin City much can be achieved through high density rather than high-rise. For example we know that there are 350 hectares of Z6 and Z7 zoned land in the outer city (Naas Rd./Park West, Dublin Industrial Estate, Coolock Industrial Estate, etc) near public transport corridors, which could be developed to high densities. That, combined with a possible 250 hectares in the Port area would allow for the provision of up to 120,000 dwelling units in very high density developments at 4/5/6-storey heights with 200 units per hectare. This suggests that mere demographics and economics do not require DCC’s indulgence of high-rise.

So, where is high-rise desirable?

The answer is we do not know. All we have is a confusing, incomplete and preliminary 2000 study, by DEGW. Outside Dublin City, it is possible that, if green fields have to be rezoned, consideration should be given to high-rise where there is excellent public transport. Much soulless suburbia could actually be improved, visually and otherwise, by attractive high-rise. Beyond this, we cannot and do not know because, except for Docklands and Heuston, identified by DEGW, proper studies and proper consultation have not been carried out. Reflecting this, An Taisce favours plan-led high-rise in suitable parts of Docklands particularly, subject to improved accessibility, on the Poolbeg Peninsula where they could serve as portals to the city; and on specific sites near Heuston. There may be other possibilities: Ballymun can absorb some high-quality high-rise. Perhaps some of the commercial/industrial areas in Walkinstown, the Naas Road, parts of Crumlin and parts of Finglas might derive some architectural interest from height punctuation.. These suggestions are not definitive because they are not rooted in proper research and proper local consultation. And of course even if the site is right for high-rise, it may not be suitable for ultra-high-rise – each planning application should be subjected to a rigorous assessment of all its effects. It is crucial too that once particular areas have been deemed suitable, there should be a rigid commitment not to build high-rise – unplanned – anywhere else.

So what’s the current situation?

The 2000 DEGW Study, which has been incorporated as part of the Dublin City Development Plan 2005. seemed to recommend for the moment high buildings only in Docklands and around Heuston.

And what are we looking at?

Maximising recommends in addition: high intensity clusters in Connolly, Tara St/Georges Quay and the “Knowledge Axis” (a loaded misnomer which means everything between Grangegorman, Broadstone and the Digital Hub). It sees areas with potential for height enhancement in Dolphin’s Barn, the retail core, Phibsborough/Mountjoy, the Markets, Newmarket, Marrowbone Lane, and Ship Street. It sees prime outer city urban centres where opportunities for landmark buildings exist: Finglas, Ballymun, Rathmines, Ballyfermot, North Fringe, Northside Shopping Centre and Crumlin. It sees outer city areas with potential for height and dense development: Pelletstown, Park West, Drimnagh, Richmond Road, Chapelizod and Whitehall. As if this were not all enough the strategy “recognizes scope” for “exceptional high quality buildings with taller forms (over eight storeys)”. The “most appropriate locations” (this insidious wording suggests there are other locations) for these include “On lands within the catchments [sic] areas of Transport Nodes; In Framework Development Areas in the Inner City (the wording does not even require that the high-rise be expressly included in the framework plans – merely that the area be a framework plan area!); on the strategic flank approaches (whatever that means) to the city and on the catchall “sites of a significant scale in the Outer City”. The categorisation lumps together areas with disparate characters and fails adequately to allow for their historic characters or the appropriate conservation imperative.

In other words, overall, between areas with specific “potential”, or “opportunities” for high-rise and catchall provisions for sites close to our (growing number of) public transport stops or “of a significant scale”, nearly every area in Dublin City is fair game except the absolute historic core, described as the inner city “bowl”, though even that is ubiquitously threatened by the new strategy’s proposals for the markets area, Guinness’s (with 15-20 storeys), Thomas St/Digital Hub, Connolly, Ship St, the retail core, Tara St and Mountjoy/Phibsboro as well as by the provisions for high-rise near public transport stops and in framework plan areas.. Height is limited to eight storeys or whatever a malleable framework provides.

Beyond this, City Council Management want to enshrine height “flexibility”, even in areas where high-rise was not supposed to be allowed. City Councillors rejected management’s brazen recent plans to allow this but City Management keep coming back with permissions that breach their own plan.

Even without these almost blanket charters for high buildings and flexibility, DCC will presumably continue in practice to target the rest of the city centre (and Ballsbridge) with continuing flouting of their own development plan like the current Carlton proposal (55 metres on O’Connell St). The absence of resolve to apply clear development standards evinced by this approach makes An Taisce highly nervous about the City Council adding to its array of high-rise options.

Most of the sites contemplated in Maximising are suitable for high-density development, which serves the common good. Few of them are suitable for high-rise, which serves primarily the good of the owner and occupier

Meanwhile the underconsidered and unapproved new strategy document is already being pre-emptively quoted by DCC in particular planning matters – like the recent Jurys decision in Ballsbridge, as if it were definitive. An Taisce is continuing to appeal unplanned schemes (like Arnotts: see blog, The guillotining of Arnotts) and will do so until the assessment is carried out.

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5 Responses to “Faltering high-rise agenda”

  1. Dermot Lacey Says:

    Michael,

    I note that while you commented on Councillors who perhaps were more supportive of the Management postion you made no reference to those of us who don’t – a strange ommision I would have thought.

  2. Robert Browne Says:

    Thanks be to God for the recession and with the clueless government it will soon become a depression. Now Sean Dunne says that if things keep going the way they have been he “might be considered insolvent”. I have bad news for him, of course things will keep going the way they have been, in fact they will get decidedly worse. If the rest of them admit that they are insolvent, will that save the rest of us from the prospect of High Rise towers being flung across the Dublin Skyline? I sincerely hope so! Remember, at this point in time, wealth destruction is still accelerating. Take Anglo Irish Bank, which is now only worth one per cent of what it was a year ago. The maths for AIB or BOI would not be too dissimilar. In fact, it will be ironic if the only thing that stops the undemocratic high rise madness without the need for court cases is that they simply have not got the money or are simply bankrupt.

    We, citizens of Dublin, have tried every democratic means possible to have our Development Plan for Dublin City implemented. However, the very people who are supposed to oversee the implementation of the Plan consider themselves above the law. They also think that their jobs are immune to being done away with and they are wrong here also.

    As revenues disappear the utter folly of high rise is exposed for what it is. It has nothing to do with architectural aesthetics, nothing to do with so-called “land mark” buildings, it has nothing to do with sustainability of the environment. It has however, everything to do with pure unadultuated GREED. I firmly believe that the people in City Hall who are constantly gerrymandering the Planning System and ignoring our Development Plan should be named, shamed and removed from their jobs. This would be democracy in action. I applaud counsellor Tom Stafford for pointing out recently (December 2008) the blatant democratic defecit in Dublin City Council. The High Rise agenda being pushed by these individuals will be seen for what it is in the courts i.e. malfeasance. They are playing with fire, the maneuvers are pathetic and any good barrister will nail them and then the flood gates of compensation will open. DCC will be sued left, right and centre. At a time when their revenue sources are drying up it has the potential to become the worst nightmare DCC has ever had and they deserve it.

  3. Betterworld Now Says:

    And so, the democratically elected councillors managed to vote through the discredited High Rise Manifesto at an unpublicised meeting to the absolute outrage of the community groups who felt they had already seen off this woeful developer’s charter. Its back to the good old days of brown envelopes and Dublin County Council, only these days they are all so much better at concealing corruption.

    Do us, their electors, a favour and PUBLISH THE NAMES OF EACH COUNCELLOR WHO VOTED IN FAVOUR.

    If you publish their home addresses whilst you are at it, they might receive the kind of a welcome the community sector reserve for when a drug dealer moves into their street.

    This is a corrupt council paid for by corrupting developers and landowners operating within a system of funding which ensures that the only voice that counts is the one with the money. It is time to closed down City Hall until all the corrupt politicians are thrown in jail.

    Let a vote for the High Rise Manifesto be sufficient evidence of corruption to ensure conviction, regardless of what Jesuitical construction is contained in Fianna Fail’s carefully crafted non-legislation against corruption.

    It is time for the Green Minister to disband the Dublin City Council in its entirety, set aside their corrupt decisions and insist on new elections being held.

  4. No more “high rise” worries for a while now..You cannot give a low rise apartment away, what with recession and rip off community fees. and proposed property taxes.Amen.

    • Betterworld Now Says:

      I’m afraid you are mistaken. All that has happened is the price of corrupting a Councillor has dropped and has yet to find its bottom (just like the property market). Once the bottom of the market has been signalled the corruption bandwagon will set off again, this time without the inadequate safety rails that allowed An Bord Planeala to overturn the most egregious planning decisions of the corrupted council.

      34 storeys in specific areas is no longer a contravention of the development plan, it is now positively encouraged. In fact,for the first time, there is now NO UPPER LIMIT on development in Dublin City thanks to the 2011-2017 Development Plan.

      Perhaps you missed that?

      To quote Gerry Adams: They haven’t goone away you know”.

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