In conversation with Frank McDonald, Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell looks at the demolition of our city and emphasises the need for action, and fast!
The city is still salvageable but it won’t be for much longer if the scourge of developers, and money, and poor planning, continue to tear holes in and pock-mark our city. The city needs saving not just for its heritage, history and buildings, but the city needs saving for its people. Plans for sky-scraping green-wall apartment blocks (costing thousands upon thousands to build per unit) are not plans for the benefit of Dubliners. They are plans for capital gain. No matter how you mask it, through buzz-words or the pretty graphics, the only benefit of building random skyscrapers across the city of Dublin is the benefit to the developer’s pocket. These schemes do not have an understanding of and empathy for the city and its people.
Dublin has been ripped apart since the affluence and capitalist ambitions of the Haughey years. This trend has continued for decades, and the destruction has been largely ignored. Georgian terraces and streets were bulldozed to make way for concrete and steel. Frank McDonald, environmentalist, urbanist, and, most importantly, Dubliner, wrote The Destruction of Dublin which charted the demolition of our beautiful, complex city, and the disregard for public space. The book blatantly laid bare the assaults that were being committed against the city. Yet still, they happened. Streets and spaces and views were demolished as a result of greed and ambition for profit.
The Destruction of Dublin is almost a difficult read, watching completely avoidable demolition of the character and heritage of the ancient city unfold. However, the one mollifying factor about the construction that happened during that period (and up until recently) was that developments largely respected the established height-line of the city. Now we are beginning to see planning permission being granted for monstrously tall towers, plonked around the city and county.
I am not opposed to building up. There is a severe shortage of affordable housing in the city, and generations of building outwards have resulted in communities further and further from services and life, which can be unpleasant, sprawling, and even isolated. Dublin city needs re-population. However, a few ‘landmark’ residential towers, at an extortionate cost to build and then to occupy, are absolutely not the way to solve the city housing shortage. Dublin is beautiful, historic and nuanced. It is unique and interesting and a wonderful city to know and live in. But it is being sold-out for profit. Now more than ever (and as a result of the pandemic) we understand the importance of walkable cities, pleasant outdoor spaces, safe streets. Many cities across Europe - Paris, Amsterdam, Prague - succeed in marrying modernity and a rich city culture, without the destruction that Dublin faces.
How does our city let this happen? What is there to be done? Who can stop this assault on the character of the city, which irreparably makes Dublin a worse place for everyone who lives here? I have always admired Frank McDonald's writings, and so, when trying to make sense of all these questions, it was with him I spoke. “I think what’s happening, over the last few years in particular, is that Dublin is being commodified for international capital investment. And that housing is seen as a commodity, rather than as a public good, or something that’s essential for people, or to provide for people”. A shortage of housing, unaffordable rents, the erasing of the individuality of Dublin - in one abrupt sentence McDonald had summarised the route of the problem - money.
“I agree that we need to have a higher density residential development in Dublin, and on brownfield sites... in the inner city that need to be developed. But I don’t see anything wrong with development for buildings in five to eight storey heights, which retains the human scale of the city, rather than, you know, seventeen, and nineteen, and twenty-four story towers - which is what is now being proposed in various places. And then culminating in the outrageous proposal in the two-Manhattan scale towers ... on Northwall Quay... you’ve got a forty-one story tower, and a forty-five story tower!”
There are strict rules on height lines in cities that have experience in ‘building tall’. This is because tall buildings have a significant impact on the ground below. They can create dark, windy pedestrian spaces that feel unpleasant and unsafe. And it’s not just the immediate vicinity that is affected, tall towers also cast long shadows across the city - especially in winter when the sun lies low in the sky. However, because these proposed sky-scraper developments have no tall neighbours, they are not forced to apply the same consideration and respect for their environs as their international counterparts; “It’s a tragedy, I think, that planning permission was granted by An Board Pleanála for the tower on Tara Street which Johnny Ronan wanted to build there, which was up to 90m in height. That has led to permission being granted for another tower being granted on Tara Street on the west side of the street as well, which is going to consist of offices at lower levels and Build-To-Rent (BTR) apartments on the upper levels. Both of those towers will intervene between two of the major 18th-Century set pieces in Dublin; Trinity College and The Custom House. When Johnny Ronan says that his [scheme] won’t have any effect on Georgian Dublin... it’s going to cast a shadow on the front of the Custom House in winter!”
Our city is both underpopulated and suffering from a severe shortage of affordable accommodation. The core is congested with traffic, and few urban spaces invite the city residents to ‘be’ in the city, as opposed to passing through it when necessary. Undoubtedly, Dublin needs fixing, but the tangled web of bureaucracy makes it difficult to understand where to even begin.
“I think that a number of things have to change. I suppose the [one of the] significant pieces of legislation that were introduced in recent years [was] the building height guidelines, which are mandatory on local authorities to adopt and which promote the whole idea of high rise buildings under the guides of that height equates with density - which isn’t necessarily true.
“When [Johnny Ronan] bought that site on Northwall Quay, along with Colony Capital for 180 million euro in 2019, that was based on the presumption that the building height guidelines would take precedence over Dublin City Council’s democratically adopted planning scheme for the Docklands area... The idea that the developers who own those sites should be allowed to make a quantum leap in heights is just outrageous compared to what's already been built. It’s disproportionate, and the result would be almost surreal by comparison to what has already been built in the Docklands.
“You have to ask yourself, who is on An Bord Pleanála, and what gives them the right to dictate what should and shouldn’t happen?” An Bord Pleanála was first created as an appeals board. If refused planning permission or you objected to planning given by a local authority, you could appeal to the board against the decision. This is still part of the board’s function, however now you also have the case where major housing scheme developments can go straight to the board for planning. This was to fast-track the building of housing in Dublin and across the country. In principle, this could seem like a quick-fix to the housing shortage across the country. However, in reality, the legislation introduced to give the board these new powers has only served developers, not the people.
“The idea that this is a fast track route to provide new housing is simply untrue, it hasn’t worked out like that” McDonald explains. “And in a lot of cases, developers are using it to increase the value of their landholdings. So it's like an elaborate land value exercise. And then when you look at BTR schemes that have been completed, and are available for letting, like Capital Dock, nearly half of the apartments in Capital Dock are still vacant, two years after that tower was completed in January 2019, [the prices are] just too high for the market to bear. So you have to ask yourself - what on earth is going on? That all of these things are being encouraged, and allowed and permitted?”
With regards to how these things are being permitted, An Bord Pleanála is a conglomeration of former planners, members of the Department of Housing and Planning, a former president of the RIAI... But, unlike Dublin City Council, members of An Bord Pleanála are not democratically elected; “they’re basically faceless people. And yet, when it comes to Strategic Housing Development (SHD) applications, for example on the North Wall Quay project, pre-planning discussions take place with the board's planning inspectors... And all of those discussions took place behind closed doors”.
“There’s a huge democratic deficit in planning as a result of Ministerial guidelines. The whole SHD process... relying on things like the building height guidelines - which encourage greater heights - and on the dumbed-down apartment design standards to facilitate BTR schemes.... I think that is up-ending the whole idea of proper planning and sustainable development, which is meant to be the core objective of the whole planning system.”
Unfortunately, people don’t seem to care. “They just aren’t interested, which is tragic. Because they’re going to inherit the city that’s being created now, and also, they’re facing, it seems to me, a life of paying rent, you know, rather than owning homes of their own”. Dublin city and county has universities with excellent Schools of Architecture, programmes for planning and development, courses in Urban Design. Why then do students not care, or more so not even know, about what’s happening in their environs?
Speaking with McDonald, we also discussed the development of College Green, the scourge of the co-living schemes rearing their ugly heads across the city, the Dublin Central scheme on Upper O’Connell Street, the apartment and hotel proposal for the residential Goatstown, the Hendrons’ site on Dominick Street. At the end of the day, the destruction of our city is not because people aren’t interested enough; plenty are. Many of these schemes have had many objections lodged against them. The fact is, when it comes to Dublin, money matters more.
To save the city we need to make more submissions and objections, become more engaged, more vocal, unignorable. But mostly, Dublin City Council, An Bord Pleanála, Department of Planning, developers need to stop and consider the impact of their actions.
We need to save our city, before it’s beyond repair.