01 April, 2018

Good news for Moore Street?

On 29th March 2018 Eamon Ryan TD and I met with Frederich Ludewig of Acme: the firm employed by Hammerson PLC to work on a revised design for the extensive lands that they control on and around Moore Street in Dublin's north inner city. 

The drawings that Frederich showed us display a clear understanding of the urban grain of the site. They are a marked change from the over-scaled plans drawn up some years ago for the site. Interestingly he is considering a small public square that would lie on a new East-West route that would run from O'Connell Street across to the entrance to the ILAC centre on Moore Street. 

He was accompanied by Simon Betty, head of Hammerson Ireland and Julia Collier, their head of Public Affairs Hammerson Ireland as well as Jackie Gallagher of Q4. I asked them were they going to be taken over by the French company Klépierre, and they deftly kicked that one to touch. Moore Street is a classic example of urban decay and possible renewal, but the growing influence of global companies is self-evident when you see that Klépierre is being advised by Goldman Sachs and Citibank. Perhaps I'm too nostalgic, but I feel it is worrying that global companies are taking over lands that were previously owned by local families. Saskia Sassen has a lot to say on this issue. If Hammerson isn't taken over by Klépierre hopefully they will proceed with a sensitive development on the site. It will need to respects the small-grain character and the presence of history on the site. This has been discussed at lenght by the Lord mayor's Committee on Moore Stret set up by Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh, and the Moore Street Consultative Group, set up by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and chaired by Tom Collins.

Frederich seemed open to not proceeding with the 500 underground car parking spaces that were one of the crazier aspects of the Planning Permission (PL 29N.232347) granted by Bord Pleanála. This permission has been extended to 2022 by City Council officials. These plans even included an ugly car ramp on one side of O'Rahilly Parade, along with various utility cabinets. Not the best of commemorative tributes for someone who gave their life for Irish freedom. All the more reason to come up new plans for the site. I don't envy them their job. With online retail sales chomping up the high street at 2% a year, it is hard to make predictions about the future of shopping streets. What we do know though, is that they'll have to offer people a more attractive option that suburban malls or curling up on the couch with your tablet. If we make attractive places, they'll attract customers.

Hamerson seem to be well aware of the need to retain and conserve the buildings on the site that are Protected Structures (Listed Buildings) in the Dublin City Council Development Plan, but will also need to respect the buildings deemed of regional importance in the Government's National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. It is also worth keeping in public ownership the streets and lanes that are currently publicly accessible in the area, even if new routes or squares are added. I'm hoping that there will be a significant residential element in the new design. This was minimised in the original 'Dublin Central' scheme. It would be no harm to have 'eyes on the street' as Jane Jacobs would have said, but it would also be important that the scheme provide some of the homes that we need to tackle the housing crisis. It is also important that the views of existing traders on street figure in the proposals. One worrying aspect though might be the emergence of publicly accessible but privately owned or controlled open spaces within the development. We've already seen this happen in Dublin's Docklands, and there have been incidents of harassment from private security staff. It would be worrying if this were to happen on the streets and back-lanes that witnessed the birth of the nation.

Thankfully Dublin City Council controls an important piece of the jigsaw. This is our cleansing depot at 24-25 Moore Street. This piece of land is a crucial element of any redevelopment, and the City Council will have the final say on whether to release this important site for redevelopment. Let's see what Hammerson come up with. Hopefully it will be a significant improvement on the existing Planning Permission. There's talk in the plans of a John Lewis store fronting on to O'Connell Street which could be just the kind of lift the area needs, particularly with the Luas Cross City in place, and plans for Metrolink proceeding.

That pic at the top? That's 2 Moore Street. Ear-marked for demolition in the current plans, it would be good to retain this building and others and add an extra few floors on top. Wouldn't it be great to have ground floor shopping with families living over the shop once more?

08 October, 2017

How to tackle the Housing Crisis in Dublin

I know I shouldn’t really do this, but…

Talking  up high rise distracts from the substantive issue: low-rise high density development is key to delivering the housing we need in Dublin.

Besides, our Development Plan allows for tall buildings (50m+) in four  locations, and medium-rise (50m) in ten more. Have a look at Page 318 of the Dublin City Development Plan 2016-2022

Years ago Richard Rogers  in the 'Towards and Urban Renaisssance' Report showed that high rise often doesn’t achieve more than low-rise. That;s why I feel Minister Murphy  should focus on financing affordable housing. 

He could also seek more European Investment Bank funding for this, as well as introduce a Site Value Tax to reduce price of land as advocated by the Green Party and the Irish Planning Institute. He could increase  the Vacant Site Levy from 3% to 10% or a more meaningful figure, and lower the 400 sq. m. threshold. It is crazy that these houses in Phibsboro don’t currently qualify for the levy. 

Another source of funding would be Credit Unions. Currently their surpluses go to German Bond markets and elsewhere. They should be allowed invest in Ireland Inc.

How about using 20% of Semi-State Pension funds to provide housing? CIE for instance had  €1,332,000,000 in their pension pot in 2014, (see page 77), it seems crazy some of this is not used  for housing, perhaps for the sons and daughters of CIE workers.

Cost Rental : this is what the Green Party and the National economic and Social Council want to see happen to break down ghettoisation in housing policy. Let’s do this. It’s also time the Department  of Housing gave back powers to Councils. It currently takes years for us to build, as Central Government smothers local authorities  with red tape every step of the way.

It’s time Dept. of Housing gave back powers back.  Currently takes years for us to build, Central Govt. smothers councils with red tape every step of the way. Let’s take the cowboys and cowgirls out of the rental market and increase standards in the private rental sector   12of16 

There’s thousands of underused or empty homes in Dublin and elsewhere, so let’s simplify the Living City scheme and make sure it delivers. How about making available sites for small builders or groups of those who wish to house themselves in our towns and cities: look what the Dutch are doing. And there’s lots of prefabricated home suppliers around Europe: here’s one developed by IKEA and Skanska 

Finally, let’s focus on quality, That’s what Herbert Simms as Dublin City architect did back in the 1930s, we should do the same, and architects and others are there to help.

Over to you Eoghan...

28 August, 2017

Back in Beijing

Greetings from China, where I'm back lecturing at the Gengdan Institute in Beijing for two weeks. The Institute is located off the sixth ring road of Beijing, a city of 22 million people. We're located in Niulanshan about 50 kilometres from the city centre. 

In my day job I teach urban planning and regeneration at the Dublin of Technology, and in recent years we've been attracting international students from around the world. A few years ago a visiting delegation from China sought deeper collaboration with Ireland, and that's why I'm here. The young Chinese students are keen to learn about spatial planning in Ireland, and lessons in environmental management from around the European Union. Lecturing a group of students from a completely different cultural background makes you question your own values and the successes and failures of Ireland inc.

I flew into Shanghai, and took the 300 km/h Maglev train in to the city. I then hopped on a metro that took me to  the waterfront where I admired a skyline of skyscrapers that have almost all been built over the last twenty five years on the walk to my hotel. Thanks to the Man in Seat 61 for recommending the faded grandeur of the Astor House Hotel.  The following morning I took a taxi to a railway station the size of Croke Park, and hopped on a high speed train that covered the 1,300 km to Beijing in under six hours, despite stopping in many stations in cities in between. Along the way I saw new highways and rail lines under construction, and wind turbines and corn fields in between. I knew we were nearing Beijing when a brown haze became visible outside the carriage window. My host Nina (Jiang Tianjie) 蒋天洁 met me at the station and we drove two hours to  Niulanshanzhen 牛栏山镇 in the suburbs, where the air is cleaner, and you can see the mountains on a clear day.

This week I am lecturing about the built environment, and next week heritage appraisal. I've mixed feelings about travelling this far to teach just for two weeks, but I feel there are lessons about environmental management, air quality and public participation that are worth communicating to a Chinese audience. 

I offset my flight emissions through Climate Neutral Now, a United Nations online platform for voluntary cancellation of certified emission reductions. In this instance the money goes to an electric and hybrid  bus rapid transit system in the city of Zhengzhou, south west of Beijing. It would be nice if there was a Dublin option. There's also the thorny question of human rights in China, and I had mixed-feelings about Dublin City's twinning with Beijing some years ago. Yet in my mind it is good to engage with a people who at at the heart of creating the Asian Century. China's been in the news for some of the wrong reasons this week, with Cambridge University Press being criticised for their self-censorship within China, and a note of caution being urged over Greece's willingness to cut deals and bend to Chinese interests in foreign policy.

Yet it is good to be here, lecturing young Chinese students about some of the success stories in environmental management that stem from European Directives, and being frank about the failures too. China continues to grow at around 6% each year, and while the problems that confront migrant workers, Beijing's smog and unaffordable housing persist, it is this generation of young planners that will shape the future of the Asian Century. There's been an extraordinary growth in green technologies in China over the last few years, lot's of solar water heaters on roofs, and electric scooters and delivery vehicles on the streets, mixed in with imported Fords and Range Rovers. The next few years will decide what direction the country will take, and I hope that they can learn from our experience of boom, bust, and partial recovery in recent years.

04 July, 2017

Signs for Improvement

Signs are something we tend to take for granted in the city. 

In Dublin City for some time we've gone for a fairly conventional blue-coloured bilingual street sign that tells you where you are. They're fairly inoffensive, but pretty damn dull. We've moved back to cast iron after a long period of cheap as chips aluminium signs that faded to illegibility after twenty years, but there's still a lot that could be done to improve them.

Last week at Dublin City Council's Transportation Strategic Policy Committee which I chair we considered a report on the issue. I wasn't altogether happy with what was presented and I put a wording to the floor as follows which we agreed:

“That this committee notes the report on Street Nameplates and furthermore:
- recognises the attractiveness of design of early twentieth century Street nameplates in Dublin City and suburbs;
- understands that the ‘Transport Medium’ typeface was developed in the UK for use on their motorway network rather than on city streets;
-commends the inherent beauty of both traditional and contemporary Irish typefaces;
-expresses concern at the use of bold lettering, and recommends that alternative typographical combinations be considered, such as  a combination of upper case and lower case lettering;

and requests that the manager seek the advice of the Institute of Designers in Ireland on this and alternative approaches, and shall revert to this committee again within six months with a further report on the issue.” 

These ideas seemed to go down well and Joe.ie did a little write-up on the issues.

I've nothing against Transport Medium, designed apparently by  Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert in the late 1950s but it sort of screams third motorway exit after Birmingham rather than Stoneybatter or Sandymount. There's certainly room for improvement. These signs for Eblana Avenue and Charlemont Avenue are from Dún Laoghaire. I guess they date from the early or mid twentieth century but they really have a strong sense of style and distinction to them. I'm not a fan of using Upper case all the way through; it is a bit like sending SCREAMING ALL CAPS text messages to someone, best avoided. Besides we recognise the shape of words better when they contain mostly lower case letters. 

I've tweeted a bit about this over the last week or so, and have come to realise that there's a lot of people out there interested in typography. I've met David Wall from Workgroup.ie who suggested that the Institute of Designers in Ireland  might be able to help us out. I also received a nice note from John  Harrington whose firm designed the modern Irish font bilingual typeface Martello used in the 1916 Witness History centenary exhibition which opened last year in the GPO. Rob Munnelly sent me a slide deck with some great advice, and Dave Foley asked how he could support any new initiative. There's a lot of people who would like to see improvements.

I'm in awe of Finland though. They recently commissioned the Finlandica typeface and it gives a fantastic crisp clean identity for that country. I suspect we don't need to go that far, certainly not in Dublin, but we could consider some contemporary Irish typeface for use on street nameplates in the city.

One last gripe about the current proposal is that it makes no distinction between Irish and English other than putting the Irish wording ahead of the English text. This seems to be a response to regulations brought in by Éamon Ó Cuív in 2008. Those regulations however don't insist on the same font. They state that the text in the Irish language shall not be "less prominent, visible, or legible than the text in the English language". It seems to me that the door is open to using a contemporary Irish font for at least the original Irish names on street signs. 

Street signs are a huge part of our city's identity. Think of the wonderful street signs in Paris and elsewhere. I think we can do better than this in Dublin, and I'm hoping that our engineers will step up to the mark on this one.