Monday 27 May 2019

Mark Keenan: 'What do Bono, Harry Crosbie, Sean Dunne and Johnny Ronan have in common?'


The Point Watch Tower and Shopping Precinct, left, and the U2 Tower in Dublin's Docklands, right
The Point Watch Tower and Shopping Precinct, left, and the U2 Tower in Dublin's Docklands, right
The Point Watch Tower and Shopping Precinct, left, and the U2 Tower in Dublin's Docklands, right
The Point Watch Tower and Shopping Precinct
The U2 Tower in Dublin's Docklands
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

There's a small group of Irish gents - U2's lead singer Bono, Point Depot founder Harry Crosbie, developers Sean Dunne and Johnny Ronan - with one little thing in common. Can you guess what that is?

The answer is that all of these guys have a penchant for rising to new heights and planning tallest ever Irish towers. But often it's done right at the top of the property market cycle.

Just as property prices in Dublin have stopped rising (as indicated by the latest quarterly figures on sales prices), we learned that entrepreneur Harry Crosbie is hoping to erect a huge tower near Pigeon House in Ringsend with a bulbous viewing area at the top for tourists to cling on to.

While no height has been mentioned yet, the raw graphic of Harry's Lookout Tower was recently displayed for the public and shows it will rise higher than each of the existing twin Pigeon House chimneys.

The latter stand at 681 and 682 feet high, respectively. So with the viewing bulb, Harry's edifice would count as a 'building' and is likely to be about 700 ft high. That would make it Ireland's tallest building by far, dwarfing the current title holder, Capital Dock at Sir John Rogerson's Quay in Dublin, which stands at a piffly 259 ft.

But just a week prior we learned that developer Johnny Ronan has gained permission for his own 289 ft monolith to face the Liffey, standing up over Tara Street in Dublin 2. Johnny's would certainly be bigger than Capital Dock although Harry's is more than twice as big as Johnny's. That said seasoned observers will remember that Harry has a history of firing blanks when it comes to super tall constructions.

Cork City has also been buzzing with news of its own exciting new supersized totem proposed for the docklands - a block of 40 floors said to be 400 ft high and 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 has the construction cojones to get this big one skywards - his firms have erected parts of the new World Trade Centre and he is currently coaxing up a 77-storey skyscraper in Manhattan.

The general scramble to get skywards supersized as property prices are cooling indicates Andrew Lawrence's 1999 Skyscraper Index theory.

This suggests that when the highest buildings go up, the economy (or the property market) too often comes crashing down. Lawrence was working as a property consultant with the Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein bank when he measured the relationship between high rise and economic downturns, whether local or international.

And Lawrence's theory stands up well: the Empire State Building of 102 floors (1,250 ft) was 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 leap skywards in New York on this scale was the construction of the World Trade Centre twin towers (1,368 ft) which opened in 1973 and hailed the start of the oil crisis.

Since then we had the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia (1,482 ft) opening in 1998 for the Asian Financial Crash.

More recently, Dubai's property boom produced today's tallest building worldwide, the Burj Khalifa (2,717 ft). It opened in 2008 for Dubai's property crash and the state's subsequent bailout by its emirate neighbours (the globe's tallest tower is named after Abu Dhabi's ruling Prince Khalifa, who contributed royally to that bailout).

And now we have a new world record building underway in Jeddah - the Jeddah Tower, spearheaded by the diminutive Saudi Arabian prince Al-Waleed bin Tala, will be the world's first one kilometre high (3,281 ft) tower. When completed it will easily cast a shadow over the Khalifa.

Experts say improved technology in the years ahead will allow us to build mile-high buildings by 2050 along the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright's Illinois Building (5,680 ft) which he conceived for Chicago way back in 1957 with 18.5 million square feet and 76 elevators. More current is the 2016 Sky Mile Tower (5,577 ft) design by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates designed for Tokyo, planned for reclaimed land in the city's bay area.

Here in Ireland, if we rewind to 2007, just before our own near national bankruptcy, none other than Harry Crosbie obtained permission for The Watchtower, a 394 ft high structure at the entrance to Dublin Port. But his prospects of getting it up in front of the maritime entrance to the city were soon dashed by the downturn.

In the same year, Bono and U2 were also looking to stick up their own massive monolith on the opposite side of the river. The U2 Tower was similarly sized, with a studio for the band on its top deck. The initial, somewhat fuzzy (and frankly phallic) version was scrapped in favour of a crisper shard-like design, which was also canned as the property crash and recession kicked in.

Around that time developer Michael O'Flynn unveiled Cork's highest residential building, The Elysian Tower, to which he added an antennae in 2008 to take it to 259 ft. His rose just in time to be zipped straight into Nama.

But the most ambitious plan of all came from Sean Dunne in 2007 who unveiled his massive 446 ft high edifice which was set to project over Ballsbridge in Dublin 4 on a site he bought for €380m.

Some of Ireland's richest home owners objected, stating that the massive structure was far too big to stand over Ballsbridge's leafy lanes. So Seanie's record-breaking projection had cold water poured on it.

For his part, Johnny Ronan has at least got one up. He unveiled the Millennium Tower, for a long time the tallest residential building in Ireland at Charlotte Quay in 1998. Although this opened in 2000, right in time for the Dot Com Bomb.

But perhaps we should be comfortable with the European city average of six to seven storeys for residential buildings, given that city fire brigades tell us they can't reach any higher with rescue equipment. In the post-Grenfell era, surely that's tall enough? And if we do want the sky to be the limit in Ireland, then we're also trusting wholly in standards we've become accustomed to from Irish builders - and their fire safety records in particular.

Meantime, for the Skyscraper Index theorists out there, that kilometre-high Jeddah Tower finally tops out in 2021.

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