Saturday 1 October 2016

Let's focus on city's long-term needs - not a war about height

It isn't all about looking up, insists Deirdre Conroy. High architectural standards, space for families and a plan that suits city's character also matter

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

Moving up: Dublin Chamber of Commerce’s Graeme McQueen on Dublin’s Barrow Street, in the Grand Canal development area, where workers from Google and Facebook pay up to €3,000 per month to live in towers like the 16-floor Alto Vetro building. Photo: Frank McGrath
Moving up: Dublin Chamber of Commerce’s Graeme McQueen on Dublin’s Barrow Street, in the Grand Canal development area, where workers from Google and Facebook pay up to €3,000 per month to live in towers like the 16-floor Alto Vetro building. Photo: Frank McGrath
Heuston South Quarter

Height is not everything. When it comes to our buildings and streetscape, quality of design, finish and materials really matter. Internal size really matters.

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After days of tension, Dublin City councillors voted on Wednesday night to increase the permissible height in low-rise areas to 24m, or eight storeys - that's two storeys higher than at present. Ironically, two People Before Profit councillors wanted to reduce the proposed height, despite the need for housing.

Do they object to the People that borrow and employ and work hard to build the properties to make a Profit?

The extra two-storeys are not guaranteed, as one developer discovered at a lovely location on Charlemont Street, just inside the canal.

Some 200 council flats were demolished on the site last year, they were already in serious disrepair. One block, Ffrench Mullen House, had been designed by Busáras architect Michael Scott.

The developer (who will hand over a portion of the units to Dublin City Council and pay the council a fee) had applied to build five blocks for retail and residential use, ranging up to eight storeys. On the same street, there are offices and hotels, eight-storeys would not have been out of scale, it would have been a superb opportunity for more people to live there as it is a very family-friendly area and is not in the Georgian quarter.

Heuston South Quarter
Heuston South Quarter

But An Bord Pleanála directed that the maximum height of any block would be six storeys. The board also reduced the number of apartments permissible to 253 and ordered the alteration of five two-bedroom apartments to larger one-bed units.

The difference between a one and two-bed apartment is vast. It is no longer a viable family space, nor is it a rental-share. Decisions like this are what make this city difficult to inhabit.

Elected councillors represent diverse communities with specific interests that do not affect everybody. When it comes to voting on long-term building policy, councillors are not all specialised in urban conservation or spatial planning. Whereas the executive side of Dublin City Council are specialists with the power to make decisions on who can drive in the city and where to build the incinerator. It's hard to know who to trust. The essential element of this decision is that the Georgian core should take precedence and nothing in the vicinity should exceed the height in these architectural-conservation areas and protected structures.

Elsewhere, increasing the height of low-rise was hardly a quixotic solution to our housing problems. If the overall height of a building penetrates the skyline, what matter whether it is for office or residential use? If anything, more residential use is what we need in the city. Most of the Docklands area is dead at night, unlike riverside regeneration in other capital cities.

On the face of it, the vote is a positive move, given that we have consistent growth in the number of people seeking accommodation in the city. Aside from the homeless crisis, there is a rental crisis. There will come a time when some of the 450,000 that had to emigrate during the recession will return.

The scale and internal layout of individual units is a separate, significant issue. I've been in 1990s apartments that look like they were designed for leprechauns.

Last December, the then environment minister, Alan Kelly, set new rules on lower minimum sizes for ­apartments, which means that councillors cannot make changes in the development plan. The idea that somebody from Tipperary, who barely scraped through in the general election, could dictate how Dublin city dwellers will live in perpetuity is beyond reason. The new minister, ­Simon Coveney, must amend the legislation as soon as possible to reflect Dublin City Council's decision in favour of more residential units and so improve living standards.

How do we ensure that the external 'human scale' of Dublin is maintained, and keep the character of the ­capital city the way we like it?

When it comes to urban living, our surroundings should be defined by the best in design, form, ­materials, ­recreational space and ­connectivity. Our historic city is characterised by the former grandeur of Georgian squares, tall houses distinguished by their modest brick façades and elongated windows, with central parks for recreation.

Victorian terraces stretch towards the suburbs where large Edwardian houses ­surrounded by gardens marked a growing trend for moving away from the city. The small scale of the ­remaining medieval footprint in the city and the artisanal housing - some of the finest is part of the Guinness estate - gave us a legacy of craftsmanship, quality materials and sustainable finish. Much of the Georgian grandeur has been eroded, leaving us with shells of buildings in the north inner city. The worst fate to befall our Georgian heritage, in my opinion, was the hideous pastiche constructed in its name along the quays, Lower Mount Street and the modernist eyesore on Fitzwilliam Street.

The 1986 Urban Renewal tax-incentive scheme was an opportunity to develop a distinctive architectural style for a new generation. Areas for renewal were designated at the Custom House Docks (27 acres), Gardiner Street (91 acres), both sides of the Liffey between O'Connell Bridge and Collins Barracks (68 acres), and a small area around Henrietta Street (2.5 acres) for mixed development. The scheme ran from 1987 to mid-1994 and was initially slow to take off. Banks' lending rates got more attractive and by December 1994, nearly 2,500 residential units were complete, combined with units outside the zone, and those in progress or at planning stage, over 13,000 residential units were built in the inner city before the Celtic Tiger. 1996 saw the first census increase in population in decades.

It is 30 years since the Urban Renewal scheme. Overall, the design and finish of anything built then is very poor. Typical examples are the office and residential units in the medieval quarter of Cornmarket, heading west to Thomas Street and down Bridge Street.

So, before Dublin City Council rushes into granting permission for new developments, it needs to ask why other schemes have not worked and resolve those issues. Gap-toothed terraces abound in the inner city with crumbling empty houses.

There was the Living Over the Shop Scheme (LOTS), which never took off. And only two years ago, the Living City Initiative was introduced in Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Galway, with tax incentives to purchase residential property built pre-1914 in designated areas. This has also not taken off in Dublin - if people need a deposit of €50,000 these days to buy an average house, who can afford to buy a run-down house in the inner city and do it up?

During the boom era, high-rise architectural design improved.

The 16-storey Alto Vetro - a bit like a Jenga tower - on Grand Canal Docks stands isolated in an area that could take similar quality design and is served by rail link. The Montevetro building in the background, at 67m, frames the former warehouse buildings beneath it.

But other development in designated zones is much less appropriate. The Heuston South Quarter, for instance, was constructed in the face of the 17th-century Royal Hospital at Kilmainham. The rambling mixed development obliterates the historic vistas from this classic site and is a clear example of how heritage locations can be destroyed.

The location of proposed development is more key than the height. Urban conservation and the human scale of the city can still be maintained and the visual context of our heritage buildings preserved, if development is in selected zones, integrated with community needs.

Let this decision reflect a truly cohesive plan, with high architectural standards and space for families, a plan that takes care of our long-term needs and is properly deferential to the character of the city. Not a war about height.

Deirdre Conroy is an Architectural Historian

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