Sunday 18 August 2019

The right moves: Where are the iconic designs of the recovery?

The view across London from the Leadenhall Building, better known as the Cheesegrater.
The view across London from the Leadenhall Building, better known as the Cheesegrater.

Paul McNeive

Last month saw the official opening of London's latest skyscraper, a 48 storey tower in the City, already known as "The Cheesegrater" due to its distinctive wedge shape. It joins a crop of modern London buildings whose arresting designs have seen them become known by nicknames - "The Shard," "The Walkie Talkie, and "The Zig Zag," to name just a few.

It strikes me that Ireland does not seem to be getting the architects creative juices flowing to the same extent and examples of really distinctive landmark buildings are thin on the ground. Exceptions are buildings like the original Central Bank, arguably Liberty Hall and Cork's Elysian Tower. I always liked the "Gotham City" styling of Johnny Ronan's building on Herbert Street, Dublin 2, which has always let well. This lack of pizazz may be down to a lack of imagination and courage by developers but with office rents soaring in Dublin at least, there must be an opportunity to really stand out from the crowd.

The eastern end of Dublin docklands will be transformed by three new office and apartment developments. Nama are heavily involved in all three and financed the Bolands Mill site receiver in securing planning permission for approximately 37, 000 sq m of space. The planners apparently asked the architects to take a second look at the facades, but to good effect as the buildings have a striking modern appearance, yet work well with the older buildings around them.

Nama are joint developers with Kennedy Wilson of the Capital Dock project, also on the south quays, and has been granted permission for 60,000 sq m of offices, apartments and retail space including a 23 storey tower. Unfortunately from the renderings available, the buildings are uninteresting to my eye.

Alongside these, I have welcomed the planning application, again funded by Nama, for Ireland's tallest office tower, at the mouth of the Liffey, beside the O3 and part of The Point Vilage. Unfortunately, the design appears very drab.

These uninspiring designs may not be the architects fault as Nama, whose strategy is to maximise the site values by obtaining planning permissions, may have issued a brief looking for maximised square footage with no frills. Nama's strategy in docklands of seeking large scale planning permissions is an interesting one. There has always been a view that it's the owner that gets a grant of planning that has added value. That certainly applies where an owner secures a valuable planning permission in a zone where that use is only "open for consideration", or even, "not normally permitted."

However, securing planning for a use that is "permitted in principle" adds little value, as any developer will be confident of securing that permission. There's also a risk in any application of getting an unexpected "onerous condition" which could reduce the value. Also, many developers will have their own ideas for a site so the time and money spent getting planning may be wasted.

Furthermore, the docklands is a Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) where the planning parameters that will be acceptable are specified in detail. This gives developers greater certainty in what to apply for and fast tracks the process. Normally, I would be saying that Nama would be better off simply selling these docklands sites. However, the agency has been seeking (and achieving) ambitiously dense permissions and pushing for new building heights, which certainly underwrite the site's values and their viability.

Whilst no-one will ever say it, there's always the feeling that a state agency like Nama might get an easier ride from the planners, than an application from a newly arrived "vulture fund." (It's interesting to note that an SDZ avoids the risk of having to go to An Bord Pleanala, which overturned the department of health's planning permission for the Childrens Hospital on the Mater site).

Given where we came from, it is heartening to see development again and there will be a wave of it in Dublin over the next five years. However, these are high profile sites and will be dictating the environment and landmarks for generations. Striking designs will increase rental values and hopefully, having secured lucrative planning densities, the incumbent and future developers will be going back to the drawing board.

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