Home truths: Why the rot has set in for LOTS III
EVERY now and then, Government looks back, shakes its head and admits it made mistakes. Then it goes on to make the exact same mistakes again. Such has been the case with so-called 'Living Over the Shop' incentive schemes - based on the excellent notion of providing tax incentives to transform empty floors above city shopping streets into new homes.
It was at the launch of one such scheme, in 2000, that a senior Department of Environment official announced Government had got it right this time, that it had learned from past mistakes.
The event saw the tabling of an EU Commission-approved blueprint for tax incentives to be provided for the conversion of empty floors above city shops in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.
The "mistakes" the official was referring to were all those contained in a previous LOTS scheme from 1994 tabled by then Minister Michael Smith. That one failed because of the prohibitive cost of renovating buildings to comply with required fire regulations and because the required changes to buildings under LOTS I were not compatible with their commercial function.
So back to the launch of LOTS II - this time by Minister Bobby Molloy - and before the cheese and canapés are gone, city business leaders are already piddling in the punchbowl. Tom Coffey, Chief Executive of Dublin City Centre Business Association, said: "It just isn't going to work. Under current regulations, a fire exit would have to be installed at the front of the building and businesses don't want to reduce their presence on the street."
So what did officials do about such warnings? As with those voiced over 1994's LOTS, they once again plugged their ears, looked at the ceiling and proclaimed: "La la la la!" in loud voices.
And just as business bosses predicted, the 2000 scheme was also a flop - for all the reasons they listed.
And so this week we are introduced to 'LOTS III' - yet another plan from Government to put homes over city shops.
This time it's been called the Pre-1915 Scheme (because it applies to buildings constructed before that date). Once again the general idea is excellent - to provide thousands of apartments in city centres in disused empty floors above shops - in this case, around 8,000 homes. Dublin in particular has a disgraceful amount of void space above shops in old streets and potential space for housing in empty old commercial buildings which are no longer fit for purpose. In Dublin, just under a fifth of commercial space is empty, while Government estimates that 150,000 buildings across the State could benefit.
We're not yet clear on all the functional details (the important stuff) - but we do know that up to €200,000 will be made available for commercial buildings.
As before, success (or lack of) hinges on whether officials can cut through the binding mesh of regulations which currently hamstrings restoration work -for example, disabled access regulations that seek alterations to old buildings which in turn can't take place because of preservation regulations.
But the single biggest problem for LOTS III is that Irish cities now have a far worse building problem than they did in 1994 and 2000 - the thousands of premises that have been waiting around 22 years for a workable LOTS plan are now close to failure themselves.
Buildings which had empty upper floors in 1994 and in 2000, generally have not seen use in the intervening years for problems of insurance, security issues, fire regulations and safety. And buildings need occupancy to stay healthy.
The upper floors of shop buildings in our cities - some of which were constructed in the 1700s - have been left exposed to the elements and to rot for decades, and to the degree that it might cost far more than a €200,000 gift on top of regular investment to convert them.
If most of these buildings hadn't been (ahem) 'protected' they'd have been pulled down long ago to make way for useful and viable modern space.
To see what I'm talking about, find a tall building, go to an upper floor and take a look at Irish city centre buildings from above rather than from below. You'll see a rickety and rotten patchwork quilt of roofs riddled with holes, patches and complete cave-ins.
A roofer I talked to told me that to him it was a miracle brick chimney stacks - now devoid of mortar and comprising bricks that are literally just "stacked" - hadn't fallen into streets already.
Some buildings with viable shops at street level have had rain spilling into the top floors for decades. Some have already fallen down.
So LOTS III needs viable incentives that reflect the true cost of repair and conversion. Without this cornerstone, LOTS III comes crashing down. And if it does, then this time around, many of our city buildings won't be far behind it.