There was a packed out tent for the debate about the future of Dún Laoghaire that formed part of the Dún Laoghaire Writers Festival last week. The debate was titled 'Dun laoghaire: Slow Death or Rapid Recovery?' Hats off to David McWilliams for organising the event, and coming up with the catchy title. On the panel were Bruce Katz from Washington’s Brookings Institution; historian Peter Pearson, actor Eamon Morrissey and cafe owner Derek Bennett. The discussion was chaired by journalist Ann Marie Hourihane.
Dún Laoghaire has a lot going for it, but has its fair share of challenges. The town has had been linked with Dublin for better or worse for much of its history. Three hundred years ago according to the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company, verses were written inviting the ladies of Dublin "to repair to Dunleary where they would find honest residents and could procure good ale."
Dún Laoghaire and Dublin have been connected by rail for almost two hundred years (since 1834 to be precise). Interestingly the good people of Kingstown originally objected, and put together a fighting fund of five hundred guineas to try and stop its construction. However the railway, and the harbour's construction led to the town's expansion.
The release of some of the de Vesci lands for development appears to have precipitated an early version of the Celtic Tiger between 1890 and 1910 when much of the mile-long Georges Street was built, and dates often grace the engravings and plasterwork on the upper floors of these buildings. It could be questioned with hindsight whether a mile long retail street was ever a commercial proposition, and undoubtedly there were winners and losers in the retail market. My memory of Dún Laoghaire as a child in the 1960s and 1970s was of a bustling market town, although new shopping centres such as Stillorgan and Cornelscourt chipped away at Dún Laoghaire's retail base.
The creation of the awkwardly titled and shaped new county of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown did little to boost the town although the administrative offices were placed adjacent to the reconfigured town hall. The opening of Dundrum Shopping Centre in the west of the county was a body blow to the town, and its offer of free parking and indoor malls attracted shoppers from the coast. Dún Laoghaire's 1970's shopping centre began to show its age, and its absurd design with a multi-storey park-park blocking the view of the sea failed to attract a new generation of shoppers. Even Marks and Spencers only lasted a few years on the main street before closing its doors as the Celtic Tiger came to an end.
Peter Pearson in his book 'Between the Mountains and the Sea (1998) states that:
"Dun Laoghaire is a residential town and part of the greater suburbs of Dublin, but it has lost many of its commercial enterprises and educational establishments and has relatively few cultural attractions for a place of its size and importance." He goes on to say "It has all the benefits of a town, and ... (it) is always a joy to walk the magnificent piers and see the terraces and church spires against the backdrop of the Dublin mountains."
Perhaps the building of the heavily criticised new County Library on the waterfront will attract more people to the town again, if even to visit and wonder what all the fuss was about. I suspect it will be a bit like the Eiffel Tower - a construction of much controversy that slowly was adopted by the citizens. Certainly the covering over of sections of the railway has been welcomed, and the landscaping is of a high quality. However this has led to a divided town - the Monaco/Beirut effect as Derek Bennett termed it.
Bruce Katz had some good advice. He started off by saying that Dún laoghaire wasn't that bad compared to many American cities. One could hardly disagree! He went on to give three pieces of advice.
1. Form networks to promote the town's rejuvenation. He acknowledged the passion at the debate, and felt that this combined with the strong heritage or cultural memory could only be a good thing. He said that the Public, Private and Civic spheres needed to co-operate.
2. He said the town needs a vision, grounded in evidence. Again, a good clear proposal that met with broad agreement. The County Development Plan is one thing, but you need a vision to get the ball rolling.
3. Set up a series of interventions to move things on. He suggested that what was needed was the infrastructure that attracts the 'Young Millenials' as he termed them. Free wi-fi on the main street was mentioned, but he also said walkability, cyclability and liveability are crucial.
He suggested that maybe a three day 'hackathon' or charette might produce a few good ideas. Finally (and I may have misquoted him), he said a Dolly Parton approach was required - Figure out who you are and do it - be yourself! Regeneration is a multi-faceted challenge - whether it be in the inner city or the suburbs. In the Dublin Institute of Technology I've set up a new Masters programme in Urban Regeneration and Development, and you can find out more about the Programme here.
Derek Bennett of Harry's Cafe asked if anyone from Council management was in the room. One hand went up. He painted a fairly bleak picture, suggesting that footfall was continuing to decline, and that the Council appeared to have a hand-off approach,. However he had met the new County Manager Philomena Poole and was looking forward to working with her. He talked about how he had to reduce the wages he pays his staff by 20%, and suggested that a bit of innovative thinking was needed on parking. He said that the Council doesn't understand the link between parking, footfall and revenue.
Peter Pearson said that the town was always in the shadow of the Capital. It has also been in the shadow of Monkstown, Glasthule and Dalkey. On parking he felt that there should perhaps be two hours free parking in the morning, as they offer in Skibereen.
Eamon Morrisey had some great memories of sea-faring types in the rare old times but he put his finger on the button when he stated that Dún Laoghaire never really had a 'centre' and perhaps this was part of the problem.
In the medium term term perhaps the vision for Dún Laoghaire could start with the preparation of a Local Area Plan and/or Architectural Conservation Area for the town. This could tie in with the making of an Economic Plan for the County that is mandated under the 2014 Local Government Reform Act. I'd also like to see someone at a senior level within the County Council given the role of Town Manager.
However I'd start with tackling the problem identified by Eamon Morrisey. Sit down with the owners of the old Shopping Centre (apparently a hard-to-contact group of investors from around Galway) and convince them of the merits of blowing up or demolishing their building.
As part of the re-building I'd suggesting putting in a decent-sized town square just opposite St. Michael's Church that would provide some breathing space in the centre of town. Imagine catching the last of the sun on a Summer's evening as you look down from your balcony at children playing in the centre of a car-free new Town Square with a breeze blowing in the trees...
I'll leave you with that.