24 December, 2015

Low standards in high places

In a true democracy local government officials wouldn't feel obliged to issue a press release when a senior planner speaks their mind. 

However that's what happened when Dublin City Council Senior Planner Kieran Rose said that Minister Kelly ‘has been bamboozled by certain powerful vested property interests.’  Rose was referring to Kelly's newly published Design Standards for New Apartments which roll back on improvements made under previous Governments.

The Council under Chief Executive Owen Keegan issued a press release saying that “The comments, while made in a personal capacity, are both inappropriate and regrettable and do not reflect the views and opinions of management of the City Council.If that isn't a slap-down then what is?  Group think and the 'uno duce, una voce' approach is precisely what got Ireland into difficulty in the first place. We're in trouble if public servants aren't allowed speak their mind.   The etymology of bamboozle lies in the French word embabouiner "to make a fool (literally 'baboon') of, and there is certainly a Neanderthal feel to those who are arguing for lower standards. Let's not forget that some years ago the Construction Industry Federation argued against mandatory insulation in new homes, saying it would drive up the price of housing. These same vested interests clearly have the ear of their Minister.

If Labour's Kelly really wants to increase housing supply he should spend more time talking to the European Investment Bank to release funding for housing. He could also legislate to ensure that a portion of semi-state pension funds are invested in new homes. It seems crazy that when there's over a billion euro in CIE pension funds yet none of these monies are obliged to be invested in housing as they are in other jurisdictions. He must also sit down with Credit Unions, Trade Unions and other bodies to ensure that they too play their part in tackling the housing crisis. He could modify the much heralded 'Living City' scheme for older buildings that has been spectacularly unsuccessful. Finally (dare I mention it) he could allocate sufficient funds to local authorities so that they can build as much housing as they did in previous times when there were housing shortages.

It would be shameful if Labour's legacy in the Customs House were to be smaller apartments, lower ceilings, less storage space, and new homes with no access to sunlight, yet this is now set to happen under Alan Kelly's watch. Kelly has bought into the 'starter homes' and 'first time buyers' language that characterised Liam Carroll's Zoe shoe-box apartments back in the last century. Five years ago the Government that I was part of phased out bedsits. Now, thanks to Alan Kelly they are on the way back. Earlier this year when a u-turn on bedsits was first mooted ALONE – a housing and advocacy charity for the vulnerable stated that they campaigned against this type of accommodation for over 30 years and we don’t want to go back. We would be concerned that it would be the most vulnerable who would be forced into this type of accommodation, often located in old buildings with sub-standard conditions.  ALONE believes the government needs to look at long term strategic solutions to providing quality housing instead of short term reactions to the current crisis.” It seems curious that the Labour Party isn’t doing more to provide quality state-built homes as they did when in Government previously.
The Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 introduces a vacant land levy to put pressure on land hoarders to build and make best use of their lands but its introduction had been long-fingered until 2018. If this provision was enacted sooner it might put pressure on land-owners to make better use of their sites to apply for planning permission and build the housing that is so badly needed. Further back-peddling is underway with the repeal of the new windfall/betterment tax of 80% on trading profits and capital gains arising from disposals of land that was built into the National Asset Management Act. This provision was a positive development to deter speculation and yet Fine Gael and Labour removed this provision in the 2014 Finance Act. This will encourage speculative rezoning and higher land and housing prices.

Minister Kelly hasn't provided for any public consultation prior to making these new standards. This means his changes may be in breach of the Aarhus Convention which states that Government shall endeavour to provide opportunities for public participation in the preparation of policies relating to the environment including housing. This one could run and run.

23 September, 2015

Councillors insist on having cake and eating it

Dublin City Council met last night and dropped Local Property Tax by 15% against the CEO Owen Keegan’s recommendation.
That means less money for libraries, pedestrian crossings, senior citizen services, opening locked parks, fixing footpaths and roads, tackling dog dirt and street cleaning, public realm improvements etc. Interestingly in the light of the Web Summit moving to Lisbon it also would have funded CoderDojo and city WiFi. Oh, and housing, and homelessness services will feel the pinch as well.
You’ll save €60 if you own a house and it is worth €250,000 or €1,000 if you live on Shrewsbury Road. No tax is perfect, but the Green Party felt this was fairer than most and voted against decreasing this tax in Dublin City.

15 June, 2015

Improving cycling on the Liffey Quays

The Liffey Cycle Route is a 'must have' project for Dublin . It is strong on vision, and just like the Grand Canal Cycle Route it will attract increased numbers of cyclists once it is built. Currently cycles feel the squeeze at too many locations.

So why have I requested further information on the four options that were made available for consultation earlier this year? Let me explain. 

Four options were presented to the public as part of a non-statutory public consultation earlier this year. You can see them here. Actually they aren't that easy to see, as the detail drawings are large files that can take several minutes to download. What you can see though are images for each of the four options. As you can imagine most people went for the option showing a green park. The schemes could have been better presented, but that's not my main concern. I'll discuss the problems with the preferred route (Option 3) below.
1. It involves diverting buses and most traffic to the north of the Croppies' Acre Park. This involves running a ten metre-wide road through the mini park shown in the image above. This would effectively divide the park in front of the Aisling Hotel in two. It would also involve demolishing a large chunk of the red brick buildings that are part of the Civil Defence premises on Temple Street West. These have been used for homeless accommodation in recent winters and the buildings are of some merit in themselves. This small park will be bisected and become a busy road.

2.  All buses that currently use the north Quays will be diverted to Benburb Street and then on to a route just south of the Luas tracks as far East as Church Street. The problem is that there's an apartment block ('Smithfield Lofts') under construction (Ref. 2992/14) just west of Smithfield and this is a real obstacle to allowing this to go ahead. You can see a crane on site in this image. I'm not sure how this can be addressed other than by re-routing buses back down Queen Street. Incidentally Dublin Bus has expressed concern about their buses being re-routed from their current alignment.

3. This option also reroutes traffic around the larger Croppies' Acre park, effectively placing a two-lane 'chicane' in front of the Collins Barracks entrance at the eastern boundary to the park. The drawings show a wide curved road at this point. I'm sure this could be refined in detailed drawings, but for the moment it seems clumsy, not very-pedestrian friendly and more suited to cars than people..

4. The main advantage of the preferred option is that it takes vehicular traffic away from Wolfe Tone Quay leaving the cyclists with a pleasant quay-side cycle route. It also allows the park to stretch towards the quay walls. While this sounds good in principle I suspect that in practise it could be a bit intimidating to cyclists at night time.  No-one likes sharing road-space with lots of traffic but a few passing cars at night-time can increase passive security. I'm sure that the route would involve decent lighting, but the centre of the park is a long way from nearby homes. 

My preference if for Route 1 which places a two-way cycle route on the North Quays but doesn't divert vehicular traffic away from the river. At the narrowest point on Arran Quay a boardwalk (just like the one further downriver) may be required to facilitate pedestrian traffic and the narrow footpath on the right of this image would be removed and replaced by a three metre wide two-way cycle route.

None of the options presented to the public dealt with the mess of a junction that is Frank Sherwin Bridge. This is the road bridge closest to Heuston Station. Further work will be required to calm traffic and reduce the conflicts at this location for any of the four options.

At the Transportation Strategic Policy Committee which I chaired) on 10th June 2015 we agreed to note (NOT defer) the report. We also agreed to seek further information on all four options before we go through a formal Part VIII planning consultation. We're also going to arrange on on-site meeting to walk and cycle the route. We'll ask the Conservation officer,  the Parks Superintendent and the Planning Department for their views, and present the proposals to the Central Area Committee in July. That way when we meet again in September we'll be in a better position to decide on how best to pursue the project.

06 October, 2014

Moore Street's in trouble

Dublin's Moore Street is in trouble. Shops have closed, market traders are facing competition and the plans for redeveloping the street are dated, damaging and dreary. On Monday evening the City Council is being asked to agree to a land swap that will allow the project known as Dublin Central to proceed. Plans for the comprehensive redevelopment of the two hectare site on the east side of Moore Street have been approved by Dublin City Council and An Bord Pleanála. The Council sees this project initiated by developer Joe O'Reilly and now facilitated by NAMA as a flagship project for the city.  The sweetener to the deal is that the O'Reilly's company Chartered Land proposes to restore 14-17 Moore Street where Padraig Pearse and Easter Rising volunteers retreated to from the burning General Post Office on O'Connell Street. He hopes to restore them for an ambitious deadline of Easter 1916. However the imposition of another soul-less shopping centre is too high a price to pay for a heritage centre.

O'Reilly's plans were first lodged with the Dublin City Council back in 2008 as the Celtic Tiger breathed its last. In keeping with the spirit of the times his company Chartered Land applied for planning permission for an over-sized shopping mall. It was to be thirteen stories high with five basement levels, and featured a dubious north facing Rooftop Park. Little attention was paid to the historic houses on Moore Street that featured prominently in the events of Easter 1916. Under successful pressure from historic groups the Government intervened, and the currently approved plans allow for the sensitive restoration of 14-17 Moore Street and 8 & 9 Moore Lane. However these buildings will be heavily overshadowed by new buildings behind them. In their planning decisions the City Council and An Bord Pleanála put some manners on the scheme and reduced its height and vulgar Celtic Tiger excesses. Nonetheless the overall development still involves shoe-horning a large shopping centre into a restricted city centre site with a large basement car park.  In essence it is a shopping mall with parking for seven hundred cars.

There will only be one shop facing on to Moore Street in the approved scheme. There will be no upper floor residential units over-looking this historic street. Most of the mall will open out on to Moore Lane, where presumable some of the existing cobblestone sets will be retained to lend an air of authenticity to the new shopping mall. It rivals the ILAC centre in its ambiance and architectural expression. This lane will be open to the public but protected from the weather with a rain screen. It is unclear how this area will be policed.

The approved plans feature a massive amount of car parking despite the current construction of a Luas line along O'Connell and Parnell Street. This means many more traffic will travel through already over-crowded streets. This seems to be at odds with Government's 2010 policy on Smarter Travel, but the plans were lodged before it was published.

The need for more housing is currently a burning issue, and it seems extraordinary that the development will only have a handful of residential units. An opportunity has been lost to seriously tackle the city's housing needs. These units will be located in the centre of the block and will not provide any additional passive surveillance of Moore Street or O'Connell Street at night when the shops are closed.

On Monday city councillors are being asked to smooth the development’s passage. It is proposed to sell the Dublin City Council cleansing depot at 24-25 Moore Street to the developer. That building would win no architectural prizes but will be demolished and be replaced by a ramp to the car park similar to the charmless Chapel Lane to the rear of the ILAC Centre. Just around the corner on the south side of O'Rahilly Parade the wall where Michael Joseph O'Rahilly wrote a last letter to his wife before expiring in 1916 will be replaced with switchboards and junction boxes. The battlefield site is not being treated with the respect it deserves.

Thirty years ago when Temple Bar was threatened by plans for a central bus station, artists and others protested and ensured that the area was protected by a Framework Plan that retained most of the older buildings. The area bounded by Moore Street, O’Connell Street and Parnell Street deserves a similar plan today. Such a plan could protect older buildings and shops, and could also provide room for new homes and businesses. Modern infill buildings could compliment the best of the past. Instead of facilitating this development I am hoping that my Council colleagues will turn down the land swap on Monday night, and force the developer back to the drawing board. Almost a hundred years ago a new republic was declared on O'Connell Street. If they were alive today I suspect few of those who fought for Irish freedom would welcome another shopping mall onto the sacred ground where they breathed their last.