Wednesday 11 December 2019

Home truths: The larger they come the harder we might fall

Cork docklands
Cork docklands
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Cork City is abuzz with news of an exciting new supersized totem pole proposed for its docklands - a block of 40 floors planned by Irish-born, New York developer Kevin O'Sullivan. The building would rise head and shoulders above the 17 storey Elysian Tower, currently the city's loftiest skyline intrusion.

O'Sullivan certainly has the construction cojones to get this big one skywards - his firms have worked on many towers in the USA, including parts of the new World Trade Centre, and he is currently engaged in coaxing up a 77-storey skyscraper in Manhattan. Mr O'Sullivan has said that as a developer he has witnessed the "ups and downs of the US economy" and that his tower "has to happen now for Cork."

The plan for an international hotel, prime offices, and perhaps some apartments, has generally been welcomed Leeside. Corkonian former housing minister Simon Coveney says the tower plans "will blow people away". But despite the ecstatic welcome for the promised projection in Cork, a city sometimes charged with overcompensating for its second city status, locals should perhaps pause for thought and consider the theories of one Andrew Lawrence regarding supersize towers.

Back in 1999, Lawrence, a property consultant with the Desdner Kleinwort Wasserstein bank, came up with what he called The Skyscraper Index.

The theory asserts that the commencement of the tallest buildings almost always coincide with a new economic downturn. When the biggest ones go up, the pants fall out of the economy - whether local or international.

Andrew's theory has generally stood up royally to scrutiny. Take the emblemic Empire State Building of 102 floors (381m), the world's tallest building until 1954. It broke ground in 1929, the same year as the Wall Street Crash kicked off, the century's greatest economic catastrophe. The next great flexing of architectural muscle in New York on this scale was the construction of the World Trade Centre twin towers (417m) which were opened in 1973 - coinciding with the start of the Oil Crisis.

Since then we had the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia (452m) opening in 1998 to coincide with the Asian Financial Crisis. More recently we saw Dubai's property boom produce the then tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa (828m), which opened in 2008 right in time for Dubai's property crash and the state's subsequent bailout by its emirate neighbours.

In Ireland, when it comes to tallest towers, Dublin, Belfast and Cork have long been engaged in a decades long game of "mine's bigger than yours." Belfast with its historically more liberal planning regime was long the location of this island's tallest buildings. The premise of the Skyscraper Index fails in booming 1960s Ireland, however. Liberty Hall at 60 metres was completed in 1965 by Ireland's trade union movement - anxious amidst the heady era of Lemass led growth to let the country know that the Irish labour movement carried a big stick. Realising Dublin's was now bigger than theirs, Cork immediately got busy working up an enormous skyline projection of its own. Construction started in 1965 on County Hall.

At the same time, Belfast got busy on Divis Tower, topped off in 1966 at 61m - making Belfast's tower bigger than Dublin's. But two years later in 1968, County Hall finished at 67 metres - biggest of all! Three record towers and not a crash in sight.

While Belfast subsequently erected a slathering of tall buildings over the coming years, south of the border the height wars simmered down until late 1990s and the economy picked up again. Suddenly all manner of outsized projections were being proposed. This time the Skyscraper Index proved prophetic. The first to be completed was the Millennium Tower at Charlotte Quay Dublin, which opened in 2000 (63m) - right in time for global economic decline of the Dot Com Bomb.In the mid-noughties various Dublin schemes were proposed (including one by U2). But none of these got underway. At Tiger towermania's most extreme, the one time Baron of Ballsbridge Sean Dunne proposed knocking a cluster of Dublin 4's most popular hotels and erecting the biggest tower Ireland had ever seen - right over the homes of Ireland's richest.

The Dunne Tower, in planning through 2007/2008, was to have stretched up 37 storeys at 136 metres. Planners prevented it becoming our Empire State recession marker. Stiff opposition from influential neighbours, among them billionaire Dermot Desmond and theatre boss Michael Colgan, argued that Dunne's was far too big for Ballsbridge. But all the while Cork was going for broke. The Elysian Tower (the word means 'blissful'), which projected 71 metres, was unveiled by developer Michael O'Flynn in 2008. An eight-metre antennae was added to take it up to 79 metres.

While Dublin's tiger towers misfired, the biggest residential tower Ireland had ever seen was thus completed in Cork and ran right into the biggest property crash the country has ever experienced. A year later 80pc of the apartments were unsold and it took until last year to let them all - only after O'Flynn's outfit had €1.5bn of debt taken into Nama.

So will a 40-storey tower in Cork's Docks herald a crash as per the Skyscraper Index; or an unfettererd period of vitality as per the two Halls, Liberty and County? A year in planning and three for construction means we'll find out somewhere about 2022.

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