Tuesday 25 June 2019

Death of a dream in leafy D4

After planning rows and financial meltdown, Ballsbridge is a shadow of its former self, says David Robbins

For over a century, it has been the most sought-after address in Dublin. Now, Ballsbridge in Dublin 4 faces an uncertain future.

Just a few years ago, it was the golden triangle of the property boom. These days, Ballsbridge is pockmarked by vacant lots and beset by planning rows. Most of the developers are leaving their trophy homes on Ailesbury and Shrewsbury Roads.

Last month, Sean Dunne, the so-called "Baron of Ballsbridge" got planning permission for a modest, scaled-down version of his Jurys development and promptly handed the whole thing over to the banks.

His Jurys and Berkeley Court sites, bought for an eye-watering €379m in 2005, are now in the hands of his creditors, along with several other properties in the area.

His bid for the Jurys site alone was €275m, a sum he arrived at by asking his then girlfriend Gayle Killilea (now his wife) to pick a number anywhere between €253m and €275m. She picked the higher figure, which turned out to be €100,000 above the next highest bid.

Meanwhile, the former UCD Veterinary College, bought for €171.5m in November 2005 by Ray Grehan, also lies vacant. Auctioneers estimate it would fetch only €20m if sold now.

In the boom times, the place was knee-deep in grandiose plans for landmark developments. Today, there are only a handful of new planning applications pending in Dublin 4, including one for a single-storey extension to a house on Derrynane Gardens in Sandymount.

But back in 2007, plans for the area included Dunne's 37-storey "diamond cut" tower at Jurys, Grehan's office, hotel and apartment scheme at the Veterinary College site, an eight-storey hexagonal office block by Bernard McNamara, and the €365m redevelopment of Lansdowne Road. Only the Lansdowne project went ahead.

Dunne's €1.5bn vision for the Jurys site was by far the most grandiose. It involved a 37-storey, €132m residential tower "cut like a diamond", a multi-storey embassy complex and office block, a 232-bedroom hotel as well as an upmarket underground shopping mall.

The plans, drawn up by Henning Larsen Architects of Copenhagen, proved deeply divisive. The diamond tower was too much even for Dublin City Council (DCC).

In March 2008, it granted permission for the development provided the tower was omitted.

Over 127 appeals were then made to An Bord Pleanala. Most were against even the scaled-down proposal, but Dunne himself appealed in an attempt to get the tower reinstated.

The oral hearing of the appeal was one of the great sideshows of Irish planning, and the Bord's decision sent shockwaves through the whole planning process. It found that the plan was a "gross overdevelopment" of the site, and went further to add that Dublin City Council had granted the permission in "material breach" of their own Development Plan.

This finding led to the decision by then Minister for the Environment John Gormley to commission an inspector's report into DCC's planning processes. (Current minister Phil Hogan has since rescinded this decision.)

Jim Keogan, executive manager of the planning department of DCC, told the Irish Independent that the council were "quite entitled" to grant the permission to Dunne as there was a certain ambiguity or room for manoeuvre regarding height in the existing city development plan.

Dunne's media statements also caused local resentment. "Ballsbridge has for a long time been wrongly portrayed by some as a village, whereas in fact it is a national centre," he said in August 2007.

But that's exactly what its residents wanted it to remain: an urban village, just like nearby Sandymount, Donnybrook and Ranelagh.

Residents and local politicians believe Ballsbridge's problems stem from poor planning. Local Valerin O'Shea, a member of the Ballsbridge Residents' Association and also involved with An Taisce, thinks that the planners' vision for Ballsbridge was completely at variance with what local people wanted.

Local TD Eoghan Murphy (FG) agrees that the area has been let down by the planners.

And independent town planning consultant Alice Charles believes that the city planners have "got it wrong" in Ballsbridge for many years. For local councillor Oisin Quinn (Lab), the development of the area has been a "sorry saga".

A brief recap of the boom time madness that gripped Dublin 4 is instructive. It was in the summer and autumn of 2005 that the big deals in D4 were made: Dunne's Jurys deal and Grehan's Veterinary College deal.

Then, in 2007, a draft Local Area Plan (LAP) for Ballsbridge was published. Local residents' groups were horrified at the high-rise, urbanised "vision" planning consultants Urban Initiatives had for their village.

The LAP was rejected in June 2007 by councillors following an energetic campaign by locals. "A big problem with the LAP was the concern that the needs of developers were being considered ahead of the concerns of residents," recalls Quinn, who voted against it.

'DCC got their fingers burnt with the Ballsbridge Local Area Plan," says Alice Charles. "When local people found out what the planners had in mind for their area, they were up in arms. They are a very informed and educated group.

"Residents considered Ballsbridge to be a suburban village not the Central Business District. They thought the proposed building heights to be way out of character with the area and contrary to the city plan."

Despite such vociferous local opposition to the plan, DCC granted Dunne permission for his Jurys scheme just nine months later.

"The retail element of the Jurys proposal was twice the size of Rathmines," points out Valerin O'Shea.

"This type of development would serve not only to destroy Ballsbridge but, as was found by An Bord Pleanala, it would also impact on retail business elsewhere in the city. It's difficult to understand how DCC could have considered this to be good planning for the area or the city."

"Height was always the issue," says Eoghan Murphy. "Such a price was paid for the land that the developers had to go for high-rise and high-density. It's a kind of backwards ways to do it and the process quickly comes undone when you try it that way.

"During my time on the council, there seemed to be a constant battle between the councillors and the planners. They wanted to create, as was said, a version of Knightsbridge."

There is also some concern as to what will happen to the area now. Dunne's planning permission for the Jurys site lasts for 10 years, and building time for the new, more modest scheme is five years.

"So," says Alice Charles, "what will probably happen is that they [the banks] will continue to operate the hotels for about four or five years and then look at the possibility of off-loading it.

"Or the banks could try to off-load it immediately. There is emerging interest in investing in prime Dublin land and property assets, particularly from the rich Irish diaspora, Russian, UK and German investors, who may think property in Ballsbridge to be a solid investment".

Quinn says the current plans for the site are "not very imaginative" and a considerable step down from the "marquee, completely over-the-top project" that preceded it.

He suspects that some developers are submitting "going-through-the-motions" planning applications so that they can add value to their vacant sites. A site with planning permission looks better on a balance sheet than one without.

However, if the owners plan to alter the development (called seeking a variation on the planning permission), they may be in for a shock, says Quinn.

The permission was granted under the old city development plan, but any variation would come under the new plan, which is much stricter on height. Under the current plan, there is a limit of six storeys in the Ballsbridge area. "I'm not sure they've thought it through," he says.

Jim Keogan, of DCC, confirms that any variation sought would be considered under the new development plan.

For Alice Charles, leaving an area like Ballsbridge with so many vacant sites is an invitation for trouble.

"The vacant sites around the city, including the Veterinary College on Shelbourne Road, are causing urban blight," she says.

For Eoghan Murphy, the sites offer possibilities. "It's a great opportunity in a great location," he says. "If we were starting with a blank canvas, I think we should look at employing people on the tech side in an area like the Vets site.

"Look at what Google has done down the road at Barrow Street; they have provided an anchor in the area and other companies have been drawn in. It would be great to create some sort of hub there," he concludes.

Ballsbridge was once the hunting fields of the Earl of Pembroke, then the battleground for the aristocracy of the Celtic Tiger. Many people think it's time the ordinary people had a say in what happens next.

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