Thursday 19 September 2019

The right moves: Could the answer to the building height debate be 20 storeys in the city?

Paul McNeive
Paul McNeive

Paul McNeive

Housing minister Eoghan Murphy's statement that he would be raising the cap on high-rise development and issuing new guidelines to local authorities by year-end, which would mean changes to the Dublin City Development Plan, has put the cat among the pigeons.

Surely, in the midst of a national housing crisis, Murphy is correct? Taller buildings must lead to higher site values, improved viability and an increased supply of apartments? The minister's plan opens up a range of questions and, as always in property, there are no easy answers.

The existing planning regime in Dublin effectively restricts new apartment buildings to heights of eight or nine storeys. Under the current plan, high-rise development generally is restricted to certain areas, chiefly the docklands, George's Quay and areas around Connolly and Heuston stations.

I have long argued that this is over-restrictive. We need more offices, hotels and apartments. Most worryingly, we are seeing a renewal of urban sprawl, which is forcing commuters into longer and longer commutes, which damages family life. That's bad planning.

The answer to all of those problems is more density in the city centres, especially centred around transport hubs. Aesthetically, too, more tall buildings make a city more interesting. The redevelopment of Dublin's docklands has been a great success, but too many of the building are too low, and a big opportunity was missed.

However, there are still plenty of sites suitable for tall buildings, and the next question is how high should we go? Increased heights feed directly into increased land values and development profits, but it's not straightforward.

While apartment values increase, the higher up in the building they are, building costs don't increase in a linear way, and the economics of development move in stages, as foundations and frames have to be upsized.

Developer feedback to me is that the optimal height for city centre apartment buildings is 20 storeys, taking account of costs and the shadowing effect of buildings, and that is a typical height for cities on similar latitudes to Dublin, in the US and Europe.

So the housing minister's intervention appears correct, but the next problem is that signalling an increase in heights incentivises developers to delay their development plans, in the hope of increased profits under the new system.

This will mean seeking new planning permissions and probably delays large schemes by up to two years, which is the last thing we need now. The minister's initiative also highlights the whole issue of certainty around planning policy, and the relationship between central government and the local authorities.

Ideally, central government should get on with national planning issues and leave planning in city centres to the experts, who are in the local authorities.

And is it appropriate that the minister, 'in the national interest', can over-ride the local councillors, whose role it is to represent local residents?

My instinct is that the minister is on the right track, but we need more certainty and longer-term planning.

Hospital schemes boost construction sector

It's a great honour to serve on the board of the National Rehabilitation Hospital, and we had a 'red-letter day' last Tuesday in Dun Laoghaire when An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, turned the first sods for the redevelopment of the hospital.

Phase 1 of the new hospital will provide 120 en-suite bedrooms and integrated therapy areas, to replace the existing facility. The €60m building contract was awarded to John Paul Construction. It is vital that phases two and three are now accelerated, to provide a 235-bed facility to top international standards.

The sudden burst of activity in new capital projects in the healthcare sector is noteworthy.

Apart from the National Rehabilitation Hospital, the new National Children's Hospital is underway in Dublin 8, as is the new National Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Portrane, Co Dublin, which will replace the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum.

When the new National Maternity Hospital goes on site next year at the St Vincent's University Campus, Dublin 4, approximately €1.5bn will be committed to new buildings.

While all of these schemes are extremely welcome, and overdue, they are putting severe pressure on capacity in the construction sector, which is struggling to keep up with the pace of development.

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