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Tuesday 22 January 2019

Niamh Horan: Is it time for our city planners to stop blocking modern high-rise buildings?

While 2017 was a record year for constructing tall buildings abroad, Dublin remains a flatland, writes Niamh Horan

BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD: Developer Johnny Ronan with the proposed Tara Street
development in the background
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD: Developer Johnny Ronan with the proposed Tara Street development in the background
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Why are Irish planners scared to move into the 21st Century? After two years at the drawing board, more than 60 different designs submitted to Dublin City Corporation (DCC) and a robust oral hearing in which An Bord Pleanala's own inspector returned with a glowing report, Ireland's tallest building was turned down last week.

Called in to assess the scheme, inspector Gillian Kane instead described Tara Street Tower, proposed by Johnny Ronan, as "beautifully executed" and said the scheme would have been a valuable addition to the city's architecture. But the appeals board ignored the recommendation and voted against her by four members to three.

The response was sheer frustration and bewilderment. And not just from those involved in the project.

Des McMahon, recipient of the lifetime achievement award for architecture and the man who designed Croke Park, is one industry expert scratching his head.

The morning after the decision, he takes a seat in a docklands coffee shop and explains how the DCC even provided a visual diagram of a 22-storey, 88m structure, and then shot down their own suggestion. Their main reason was "visual impact".

"That's the thing," laughs McMahon, "Of course you are going to see it. It's a tall building, it's meant to be seen".

After 50 years in the business, McMahon has an interesting theory that the narrative of Dublin city is written in the skyline: "Our values, history, energy, economics and culture are all expressed there. If you follow the course of the Liffey, you can see the 18th Century Georgian buildings begin near the Phoenix Park, then passing by the Dublin Civic offices, you can see the medieval quarters with its modest, domestic buildings, and from there you continue up along the river, past the important buildings of law and commerce before the river cranks and widens at the railway loopline bridge, which comes crashing through overhead. That's where the next economic phase begins, signalling the modern-day stand-alone buildings of the docklands. Tara Street would have been the perfect punctuation mark for that modern phase to begin.

"That is my theory, but on the ground Johnny Ronan and Henry J Lyons Architects logically responded to the situation as spelled out by the Planning Authority. Their plan was grounded in detailed plans and painstakingly mapped out."

Chief architect of the project Paul O'Brien says he and his team went above and beyond the DCC's requirements. Most notably, they conducted even more 'visual impact' tests than were requested by the council. Both on the static perspective - what a person would see standing head on - and on the 'kinetic' experience how someone would experience the landmark as they travelled around the city, while the building weaved in and out of sight. O'Brien adds: "What's more, the building DCC gave us as a guide was even larger than ours. If you mapped both out, our building could fit inside theirs," he laughs, but it barely veils his disappointment.

In her report, inspector Gillian Kane concluded that the tower "would integrate satisfactorily with the surrounding existing development and with the established character of the sensitive historic city centre". On the design, she stated it would "be beautiful". Speaking about its height, she said: "It will be a 'landmark' in the Collins Dictionary definition of the word in that it will be a building that is easily noticed and one that can be used to judge one's position."

And on the skyline impact, she concluded the height was acceptable, adding: "There is a clear policy framework, one which I find reasonable and appropriate - for an 88m building at this location." She added that an impact on the city skyline was "inevitable".

With its position near open space, and beside a main transport hub (a practice employed in major cities around the world) she also stated that the site was "a strategic location, adjoining a busy public transport node, at a key entrance point to the Docklands".

Back in the Docklands, Mr McMahon points out the window to the Alto Vetro, saying: "Do you find that intrusive? People forget it's even there."

McMahon says he can understand the need to take precaution with planning but mused that the board must ensure it doesn't become "too much of a nervous nelly".

And that's the crux - 2017 was a record-breaking year for high buildings abroad. Tara's 22-storey plan didn't even touch the definition of 'skyscraper' - generally greater than 40 or 50 storeys. Meanwhile, the Ronan Group must go back to the drawing board, while Dublin remains a flat land.

If there is any consolation for the developer, perhaps, it's that faced with opposition from city planners, the nearby Dublin Convention Centre took 10 years to build. It's now one of Dublin's most photographed landmarks.

Sunday Independent

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