The suburban dream: Adamstown ten years on
It was supposed to offer a solution to the sprawl of Dublin, but then recession hit and now Adamstown has been only partially completed. Ten years after launch, John Meagher visits our newest 'new town'
It is 4pm on Wednesday and Adamstown train station is empty save for a trio of bored secondary school students engrossed in their phones. Outside, a handful of cars are parked in a row and, further up, there's just one bicycle locked in a facility that can house at least 100. A bus trundles by to the terminus with no passengers on board and a few minutes later it departs again, empty except for the driver.
Every now and again an intercity train rushes past, but for the most part there is a curious silence outside the station with the distant hum of traffic only discernible if you listen out for it.
A couple of hundred metres away squats the unfinished hulk of a building that was supposed to be a marketing suite for the entire development. It's surrounded by a fenced-off field of wild grass and weeds. It's not a place that lifts the spirits.
But this is only a half-true picture of Adamstown, the first new town in Ireland since the foundation stone was laid in Shannon at the end of the 1960s. The great hope of Celtic Tiger urban planning, it was launched by then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern 10 years ago this week.
Travel 500m up the road from the train station and you will see a substantial secondary school and two primary schools all adjacent to each other. Then there's street upon street of well-maintained housing - a mix of apartments, townhouses and duplexes - spotlessly clean pavements and nicely manicured green spaces.
Anyone who imagines that Adamstown is one ghost estate after another could hardly be more wrong. Occupancy runs at close to 100pc and there is strong demand for properties that go on sale. Rents are buoyant too - with a spacious two-bedroom townhouse comfortably commanding €1,200 per month.
It may not be quite what planners envisaged in 2002 when they drew up the blueprint for a new town of 25,000 residents between Lucan and Newcastle in west Dublin, but the 15pc or so of the project that has been completed appears to get the thumbs up from several residents.
"People have this idea that everything about Adamstown is half-finished but that's not the case at all," says IT specialist Bernard McGinley, who has lived in the area with his wife Nicole for the past six years. "It took quite a while for this phase to be completed, but for the past six months it has felt finished."
Nicole, an art teacher, says the build quality of their home close to the community school is of a high standard and talks about its impressive energy rating and the fibre broadband that came as standard. She is not wholly enamoured with life in an estate some 16km from O'Connell Street - especially with the fact that the school entrance faces her home (when it was supposed to be the other side), but in one key area, Adamstown comes up trumps. "It's safe here," she says. "I've never felt uneasy walking around and that's not something you can say about other parts of Dublin."
It's a view mirrored by her friend and next-door neighbour Elly Parker: "I definitely feel safe here. You go out at night and you see lots of other people walking their dogs. Looking back, I regret the timing of when we bought, but I don't regret buying out here [Elly and her husband paid almost €100,000 more than the McGinleys because they purchased a year earlier].
"There was huge interest when it was launched - people were queuing up to get their foot on the ladder. And today, anything that comes on the market seems to be snapped up really quickly."
Bernard says there's practically no anti-social behaviour in Adamstown and believes it has a bright future.
Under the Adamstown Strategic Development Zone plan, some 10,000 housing units were to be built on a 220-hectare site that would also include schools, community centre, swimming pool, shopping and a transport hub.
From launch in February 2005 until the onset of recession in late 2008/early 2009, close to 1,400 homes were completed. It's thought that since then just 20 further units were finished. In December, An Bord Pleanála approved plans to kickstart construction in Adamstown although it blocked South Dublin County Council from implementing what it said were "excessive" reductions in housing density there.
The council had wanted to double the number of houses to apartments. The planning agency noted: "While recognising the current concerns regarding economic conditions, viability of construction and property market preferences. . . the reductions in density proposed would be excessive."
For one leading Dublin-based planner, Adamstown remains a significant plank in helping to solve the capital's housing shortage. "There is enormous potential in that part of west Dublin," he says. "It's by no means a success story and there are drawbacks to what has been completed. Any time I go out to Adamstown, I'm struck by the fact that there's an enormous electrical pylon plonked next to an apartment building, but there are enough positive things about Adamstown to make it work in the future.
"The train station is key because it makes the city very accessible to Adamstown residents and it will be all the better if plans go ahead to open the Phoenix Park tunnel and allow trains to go all the way to Connolly."
The planner praises "the attractive mix of housing" that was built between 2005 and 2008, but says the lack of services and amenities in the area hampers any sense of a vibrant community. "Residents have to get in their cars if they want to go to a supermarket or a pub. There's no community centre, no church, no point of contact with the exception of the schools, which of course is irrelevant for those without school-going children, but the cumulative effect of such an absence of services creates a very anodyne atmosphere there."
At present, services in Adamstown are very thin on the ground with the exception of a convenience store and a hair salon. Oliver Barrett, owner of Pamper Yourself Hair and Beauty, says business is buoyant and he has not had cause to regret establishing his salon in Adamstown despite the stalled development of the past six years.
"In this industry, customer loyalty is very important and I've been lucky on that front. I think there's a sense of people here who want to support a local business, rather than going into town. There's a large mix of people here," he says. "Some might think it's just young professionals with children, but there are plenty of older people too who sold up in places like Lucan and downsized. I know there's still a lot that needs to be done here, but having a really quick train route into town makes it very attractive. You can get from Adamstown to Heuston in just 13 minutes - there are very few suburbs of Dublin as well connected to the city as that."
William Lavelle, a Fine Gael councillor in the area, says Adamstown can has "enormous potential" if development is people-focused. "A sports hall/community centre is essential," he says. "It is disgraceful in this day and age that a large secondary school like the one at Adamstown does not have a sports facility.
'In tandem with new housing, there's a huge need for shopping facilities - at present there's a chronic lack of amenities there and people have to go elsewhere to do their weekly shop. A park is essential too, especially for young families.
"One thing that always strikes me when I talk to residents is the pride they have in the area," he says. "They believe it can be a special place to live but they are terrified of two things: one that the development will simply stay as it is now and the other is that it will go ahead but without the delivery of services."
At 5.30pm on Wednesday, there's far more activity at the train station as commuters arrive home. "There are pluses and minutes to living here right now," one female professional says. "But I'm convinced that if the rest of the development is done properly, it will be a very desirable place to live 10 years from now."
THE INNER CITY: A SOLUTION TO THE CAPITAL'S HOUSING CRISIS?
The severe shortage of housing in Dublin is one of today's most pressing issues, but one urban planner believes part of the solution can be found close to the city centre.
"There are about 63 hectares between the Royal and Grand canals that are vacant at present and could be at least partly used for attractive, sustainable housing," says Dublin City Council planner Paul Kearns.
"There is a significant proportion of would-be buyers and renters who favour urban living, as long as their homes are of a high enough spec and are of a good size with sufficient storage space."
As co-author (along with Motti Ruimy) of two visionary books on the capital, Redrawing Dublin and Beyond Pebbledash, the planner believes there is huge potential in the city centre. "We have made great progress over the past 15 to 20 years," he says, "but there are still huge challenges including how to address the almost taboo subject of anti-social behaviour in many parts of the inner city. Other European cities have been able to regenerate run-down areas so it is possible to do the same in Dublin if the will is there."
Furthermore, he believes it is essential that the minimum space guidelines laid down by Dublin City Council [currently standing at 55 sqm for one-bedroom apartments] are not reduced. "Spaciousness is key," he says, "and it's worrying that there have been some efforts to have them reduced on the basis that they might not be viable to build in the current climate.
"But mistakes from the past have to be learnt. The shoebox apartments that went up in Dublin in the 1990s are hopelessly inadequate for most people's needs and it is essential that nothing like that is built here again."