04 July, 2018

New dawn for O'Devaney Gardens

Nice to have a sunny warm morning to launch the start of construction for 56 Council homes on the O'Devaney Gardens site. Our new Lord Mayor Councillor Niall Ring did the honours of digging the first sod, flanked by our local Minister Paschal Donohoe and the Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy. Our Chief Executive Owen Keegan and City Architect Ali Grehan were in attendance, as was the Secretary-General from Housing John McCarthy. It was great to have Councillor Janice Boylan there as well, as she grew up in the flats. There's a pic of some of the crowd and media looking on as Niall put the spade in the ground. There's still four blocks standing of the old O'Devaney Gardens, and some of the residents are in the picture. The scheme is a good one, the homes will be A3-rated and range from two to three stories high. Too low you might argue, but they are adjacent to small one story-high homes, and the design by the Dublin City Architects is a good one.

The Public Private Partnership deal with Bernard McNamara for this site and others collapsed ten years ago, and casts a long shadow over the failure to provide decent housing in Dublin City. What happened to day is progress , but there are other issues that need to be addressed as the scheme proceeds.

Looking ahead to the 500 other homes it is important to keep the momentum going. They entire development is intended be a  mixed-tenure: 50% private, 30% social (both Council and approved housing body) and 20% affordable. This is a Council owned site, and I would have preferred a higher proportion of Council homes, but there wasn't support for this from the Department of Housing. I've nicked the images of the housing from the Dublin City Architects blog, and you can see their excellent posting here.

I am concerned that the remainder of the development will be bundled into one contract. This apparently has been a requirement of the National Development Finance Agency I believe it is wrong to  put all our eggs in the one basket, because if the developer goes belly-up, we'll be left with nothing. I'd prefer if it was divided into three separate contracts.

There is also a compelling argument to put the infrastructure into one contract separate from all of this. This would include water and sewage pipes, gas and lighting and other public realm works.

The original Masterplan approved by Bord Pleanála showed a public space in the centre of development, described as being similar to Sandymount Green. I am concerned that the green infrastructure might be reduced in favour of low-maintenance finishes such as plastic matting and concrete, and will be watching this closely. Of course the Phoenix park isn't far away, but the football pitches in the Park are, and it is important that there's somewhere for teenagers and younger children to play without having to cross busy roads. Quality finishes and well-designed public spaces are crucial to the success of the scheme. As issues around  the public realm and place-making grow in importance it is important that we get this right. Down in the Docklands there have been problems around what is private space and what is public, the boundaries and responsibility was  blurred and we need to get this right here.

It is also crucial that there are shops and work-spaces provided in the overall design. Otherwise it is at risk of becoming a ghetto. The original plans featured a neighbourhood centre, and while the new Lidl up the road at Hanlon's Corner reduces the need for shops, it makes sense that there are some retail or work  units. Who knows what the future of retail is in 2018, but a row of small units that could have a Centra, a hairdressers, a bike shop or a cafe make sense and could provide services, jobs and training for residents and others. Some form of community space is also crucial.

There's been some calls for underground parking, but I believe this would be too expensive. Such spaces cost around €40,000 a pop, and the money would be better spent on community space. the 46A also runs right past the door, and good quality links to other public transport such as the Luas are nearby. We should ensure that dedicated parking for car-sharing is included in the plans, and of course space for DublinBikes.

Today was a good day, but we need to get the details right as we move on.

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.