Wednesday 26 September 2018

In the shadow of the Docklands

Local residents and the National College of Ireland are losing out to commercial interests in the rush to revitalise the Docklands

Dublin City Center during sunset with Samuel Beckett Bridge and river Liffey
Dublin City Center during sunset with Samuel Beckett Bridge and river Liffey

Dearbhail McDonald and Lucy Hatton

The glistening glass and steel office towers that rise majestically from Dublin's Docklands are the jewel in the crown of Ireland's economic recovery. But Ireland's 'Silicon Docks' area, berthed in the heart of the north-east inner city - and decorated with tech giants, state-of-the-art gyms and cosmopolitan cafes - is also home to one of the most socially-deprived corners in the country.

Dublin City Council and Nama - with 75pc or 22 acres of the North Lotts and Grand Canal Docks Special Development Zone (SDZ) under its management - vowed to create a "socially-balanced community".

That vow was converted into a major Government priority when, in 2016, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny commissioned a special report on the area by Kieran Mulvey, former head of the Workplace Relations Commission.

Mulvey's report, conducted after a fresh spate of gangland killings, was unequivocal, recording a strong and deep sense of the NEIC being "left behind" during the Celtic Tiger period. Mulvey observed that in some areas up to half of the population had only attended primary school and less than 5pc held a third-level education.

The renowned mediator warned it could happen again unless key issues - such as enhancing major links between education and employment - especially in the Docklands, were addressed.

As the completion of the SDZ plan draws to a close - with the number of brownfield sites in the SDZ dwindling - new statistics reveal that the fears of the Docklands community have been fully realised.

To date, less than 1pc of the total built space in the SDZ has been afforded to social infrastructure delivery. A total of 2,100 of 2,600 residential units have been approved by Dublin City Council under the SDZ Planning Scheme, including apartments primarily aimed at office workers and a scheme developed by O'Flynn Capital Partners, beside the Point Village, that will boast close to 1,000 beds for students.

For the local community, the Docklands are a world away from their reality, an aching gap confirmed in DCC's own figures.

In North Lotts, just 1,747 sq m - of 204,281 sq m - has been set aside for what the council refers to as community/residential amenities.

And in the entire SDZ, community and residential amenities (unspecified by DCC) account for just 4,000 sq m of a total 351,530 sq m area.

The clash between commercial and community interests, between the State's need to drive the economy and invest in its most vulnerable citizens, is playing out in stalled negotiations between Nama and the National College of Ireland (NCI) over a 0.8-acre site in the SDZ North Lotts.

The NCI, an independent not-for-profit college, has been providing higher education and community learning in the IFSC since 2002.

Half of its students receive SUSI grants.

The college, whose president is Gina Quin, has recently started a programme where 'readers' do home calls to help children who would otherwise be "way behind" by the time they start school.

Its early-learning initiatives (ELI) engage with 9,000 individuals and more than 60 local services in the community each year.

In June 2016, NCI, currently operating at full capacity, offered €4.5m for the 0.8-acre site to build a badly-needed second campus.

The offer was made to Deloitte's David Carson, the Nama-appointed receiver of the site.

The €35m planned 10,000 sq m campus, seven minutes' walk from its existing one, will accelerate the NCI's community programmes, with a new community library, indoor studio/performance space as well as a children's play and learning space.

"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a community and student learning hub within the north east inner city," says Quin, who has secured backing from the European Investment Bank and the Irish Strategic Investment Fund to provide project financing for the second campus.

The NCI was told in October 2016 that its initial €4.5m bid was too low. In April 2017, the NCI was informed that the site would be combined with two adjoining ones as a single lot.

The NCI says it was encouraged by the receiver to make an offer, on a pre-sale basis, for an above basement build, which would then be incorporated into the final site.

In June 2017, the NCI made a second bid of €8m and up to €26m for shell and core build.

But in August last year, the NCI's offer was again rejected amid plans to bring the conjoined City Block Three to market.

The Docklands has been critical in the recovery narrative surrounding Ireland Inc. Since the property market started to recover in 2012, the Docklands accounted for around three million sq ft, or 22pc, of the total market. In 2012 alone, the Docklands' share of market activity was even higher, accounting for a massive 31pc.

So, where is the community in all of this?

Local leaders in the heart of Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe's Dublin Central constituency, say Mulvey's prediction that the north inner city could be left behind has already come to pass. "Dublin City Council has not done enough, as guarantor of the Docklands SDZ, to ensure that sufficient supply of residential and social infrastructure is delivered within the North Lotts," said Ray McAdam, a Fine Gael councillor who is the party's leader on Dublin City Council and chairman of the Dublin Central Area Committee of the City Council.

"The Planning Department of DCC needs to adopt a much more critical approach to assessing these applications so that the objectives of the Docklands SDZ Planning Scheme are actually being met.

"The communities of North Wall and East Wall deserve more from Dublin City Council than what is being provided at the moment."

For Quin, who says the new campus will deliver €11m in community gain within the first five years, the choice is a gilded community of elite office workers that turns into a ghost town in the evening and at weekends, or a mixed-use city zone that is truly integrated with its community.

"NCI's second campus will be a shared space between offices and new residents and those who've lived in Docklands north and south for generations, offering a common facility for all, a meeting place that nurtures social cohesion."

Sunday Indo Business

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