Wednesday 12 December 2018

Johnny Ronan's Tara Tower will cast a long shadow over the future of the city

A plan to erect a 22-storey building in a derelict site at Tara Street could change the Dublin skyline forever, writes Liam Collins

Johnny Ronan wants to leave a legacy of iconic buildings in Dublin. Photo: Tony Gavin
Johnny Ronan wants to leave a legacy of iconic buildings in Dublin. Photo: Tony Gavin
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

The future of Dublin's skyline hung in the balance last week as one of the country's Lazarus-like developers, Johnny Ronan, battled to save his 22-storey development on an elbow of the River Liffey facing Liberty Hall.

Devotees of Grand Designs or RTE's Room To Improve might be lured into thinking that architecture is sexy, and maybe it is. But not the planning foreplay of a An Bord Pleanala hearing in a windowless room, as the functional realities of the new high-rise edifice are debated.

But there were occasional flashes of passion as architect Paul O'Brien of Henry J Lyons & Co spoke of the "slender and elegant" 80m structure that, if built, would be the tallest in the city with a five-storey 'podium' incorporating the train station, a new hotel and a 17-storey glass and stone tower topped off with a double height panorama restaurant.

What Dublin gets will be resolved by the outcome of this two-day argument, but while the rest of the world has moved on, Dublin is still navel-gazing about going up, rather than out.

"We are fundamentally a low-rise city," maintained deputy Dublin city planner Mary Conway. Spires and domes dominate the skyline of the capital agreed Des McMahon of the design team of what we'll call, for convenience, the Tara Tower, because basically it sits over the railway station and the dead and derelict area surrounding it.

"But as a society striving to be global we are trying to cope with the issue (of high- rise) and it is not going to go away and will have to be faced," continued McMahon. "Spreading the city outwards is ridiculous, the sprawl has got to stop."

To understand how we got to the Tara Tower of 2017 you have to go back 126 years when the Loopline Bridge went "crashing through the city" bringing trains from Bray to Connolly, cutting off the port area and obscuring views of Gandon's Custom House from the city centre. The result is that one of Dublin's best buildings is currently used as nondescript offices of the Department of the Environment and although regarded as 'iconic', hardly anyone bothers to look at it.

Across the river Liffey, Dublin City Council in its 'Local Area Plan' designated the largely derelict area around Tara Street railway station on the south bank of the river as the ideal site for a 'landmark' building of "up to" 22 storeys in height. Along with Liberty Hall, which we are told is "nearing the end of its life" it would form a "gateway" to the city itself.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Ronan's company Tanat Limited has been working to design such a building which, said Mr O'Brien, would be "elegant, timeless, not flashy and very rich in detailing."

But his hopes and dreams were consigned to the bin when Dublin City Council adopted what appears to be a contradictory position by finding that "the height and scale is unacceptable and intrusive on the historic centre" of Georgian Dublin.

Deputy city planner Mary Conway said the tower was being "squeezed into a site" that would dominate landmarks like the Custom House, Trinity College, College Green and the Georgian squares, north and south of the river, described as Dublin's "finest open space". She maintained that just because you could build a 22-storey structure didn't mean you had to. City architect Ali Grehan argued that the proposed landmark cast too long a shadow over the "historic core" of the city.

Ms Grehan said the plans were high on aspiration but the developers might not be able to deliver because of unresolved issues about mixing hotel guests with railway passengers, and a lack of parking and infrastructure for a top class international hotel. She worried that what was on the drawing board might not translate into the building that would become Dublin's first tall building since Liberty Hall was built in 1965.

The slide shows from Ronan's expert, who was involved in building The Gherkin in London, certainly didn't bear this out. "Just because you can see it, doesn't mean its bad," said David Coleman, arguing that the whole point of a 'landmark' building was that it should be seen from many parts of the city, as long as it didn't dominate the historic buildings it looked down upon.

Bob Finch, who headed the Design Review Panel which assessed the plans before they were submitted for planning permission, said the developers, who will apparently spent €130m on the building, hadn't approached it with the attitude of "let's see if we can make a fast buck out of this project."

"This building is incredibly important to the public realm, the place is awful, and commuters coming into the city through Tara Street have a deeply depressing experience," he said - and nobody disagreed. Kennedy's public house, the last surviving building on the block is, he said, "like a neglected single tooth that hasn't seen a dentist in a decade." It was proposed to integrate Kennedy's pub into the development "but it wasn't possible to reach agreement with the owners" said barrister Eamon Galligan SC, representing Tanat, the development company.

Oral planning hearings are a little uncommon these days and the significance of the task facing An Bord Pleanala wasn't lost on its inspector, Gillian Kane, who took no grandstanding as she tried to get to the essence of the issues facing the city, its planners and its developers last Thursday and Friday. Her report will be submitted to the board that will make a decision which could influence development in Dublin for a generation.

Ronan, probably the developer who came to epitomise the Celtic Tiger, has genuine aspirations to leave behind a legacy of iconic buildings in Dublin, like the Convention Centre, which he developed. Despite the importance he attaches to the Tara Tower he wasn't there himself, possibly in the belief that his presence would detract from the issues at stake, and focus on his character. But his sons James and John, and his daughter Jodie, who all work in the company, sat close to the serried ranks of experts who came to explain why the Tara Tower was the future of Dublin.

Most visitors to Dublin now come from high-rise cultures; the argument that went on for two days in An Bord Pleanala is long over in almost every other capital in the world. It is over 50 years since we got Dublin's only high-rise, Liberty Hall. The question that emerges quite clearly now is do we want Dublin to remain a city of spires and domes or do we want to join the 21st century with iconic buildings which are sensitive to, but don't dominate, what is now known as the "historic core" of Dublin?

The future of the city skyline hangs in the balance, the outcome, in mid-November, whichever way it goes, will cast a shadow over the city for decades to come.

Sunday Independent