Build a denser, less height-re­stricted Dublin

New guide­lines open door to taller de­vel­op­ments where greater den­sity is re­quired

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Olivia Kelly

The spas­modic hand­wring­ing over the height of build­ings in Dublin has resur­faced re­cently. Why now? Has Dublin City Coun­cil re­ceived an unusu­ally high num­ber of ap­pli­ca­tions for sky­scrapers of late? Has it been ap­prov­ing plans for overblown schemes which are then over­turned by An Bord Pleanála?

No, the angst is over im­pend­ing build­ing height guide­lines. “Guide­lines” be­ing civil-ser­vant speak for “or­ders”, with the aim of stop­ping coun­cils from plac­ing up­per lim­its on the height of build­ings.

The nom­i­nally na­tional guide­lines are in re­al­ity di­rected at Dublin and they stem from an ac­tion by the city’s coun­cil­lors two years ago. In mid-2016, then min­is­ter for hous­ing Si­mon Coveney wrote to Dublin City Coun­cil cau­tion­ing against re­stric­tive apart­ment heights in the devel­op­ment plan that was to come into force at the end of that year.

When coun­cil­lors ap­proved the plan they de­cided high-rise would be re­stricted to four ar­eas of the city – the dock­lands, Ge­orge’s Quay and the Con­nolly and Heuston sta­tion ar­eas. Build­ings up to 50m could be con­sid­ered in nine other ar­eas, fol­low­ing the for­mat of pre­vi­ous devel­op­ment plans.

But, that wasn’t re­ally the area Coveney had been get­ting at; he had set his sights on the re­stric­tive low-rise max­i­mum height of 19m in the rest of the in­ner city.

Coun­cil plan­ners urged the coun­cil­lors to raise the limit to 28m, and they did, but for com­mer­cial blocks only. Res­i­den­tial build­ings were kept at 24m.

This is not what the devel­op­ment sec­tor wanted, and once the new Min­is­ter for Hous­ing, Eoghan Mur­phy, took of­fice he de­ter­mined to set­tle the heights is­sue once and for all, an­nounc­ing his in­ten­tion to end “blan­ket lim­i­ta­tions” on height and giv­ing the power to plan­ners to de­ter­mine height on a case-by-case ba­sis. This had the spe­cific aim of in­creas­ing hous­ing sup­ply.

A draft of this plan was pub­lished ear­lier this year and the Depart­ment of Hous­ing in­tends to is­sue fi­nal guide­lines be­fore Christ­mas.

This sounds like a vic­tory for plan­ners over coun­cil­lors, but city plan­ner John O’Hara says it’s more com­pli­cated than that.

“Noth­ing is black and white in plan­ning. A blan­ket cap over the city where you veto any­thing above a cer­tain height is not a good thing. Won­der­ful schemes might come for­ward, el­e­gant high build­ings that per­form func­tions you might not have thought of.”

How­ever, he says the pre-height-caps era of the boom years cre­ated prob­lems too. “Back in 2005/2006 there were spo­radic ad hoc ap­pli­ca­tions for height com­ing in all over the city and we could hardly keep up with them.”

In the main these ap­pli­ca­tions were made by “flip­pers” – prop­erty own­ers seek­ing to in­crease the value of their newly-bought site by gain­ing per­mis­sions and sell­ing it on he says.

“With hind­sight, there was no in­ten­tion of ever build­ing any of them. They were purely spec­u­la­tion, and yet re­sources were spent on deal­ing with them.” There is a risk that an elim­i­na­tion of caps will again fuel land spec­u­la­tion.

The so­lu­tion O’Hara has sub­mit­ted to the depart­ment is that in­stead of a free-for-all, there should be a “plan-led” ap­proach, where the coun­cil would still de­ter­mine the con­text and lo­ca­tion for taller build­ings, but would not stip­u­late max­i­mum heights ahead of the sub­mis­sion of a plan­ning ap­pli­ca­tion.

“This would be a plan-led and cri­te­ria-based sys­tem. Cri­te­ria such as, are you con­tribut­ing to the pub­lic realm, to a vista . . . Would it cause over­shad­ow­ing or down­draft­ing?”

This would bring “cer­tainty to the com­mu­nity, the de­vel­oper com­mu­nity as well as the res­i­den­tial com­mu­nity,” O’Hara says. “It has to be demon­strated that height con­trib­utes to mak­ing the city a denser place, that’s more live­able and brings ac­tiv­ity into the city.”

David Browne, pres­i­dent of the Royal In­sti­tute of the Ar­chi­tects of Ire­land (RIAI) and di­rec­tor of RKD ar­chi­tects, thinks Dublin could fol­low the lead of other Euro­pean cities in its ap­proach to height. “Ev­ery great city needs great build­ings.”

How­ever, he sees tall build­ings as hav­ing most ben­e­fit in the sub­urbs, with six to eight storeys “ad­e­quate” for most of the city area. “Taller build­ings in ur­ban cen­tres around the city such as Dun­drum, Sandy­ford, Tal­laght, Fin­glas or Bal­ly­mun could en­hance the sense of place, both within each cen­tre but also from afar, pro­vid­ing great new bea­cons for ori­ent­ing peo­ple in the met­ro­pol­i­tan area and en­hanc­ing the in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter of each of these places,” he says.

“Most Euro­pean cities have a pre­vail­ing height of six to eight storeys with a smat­ter­ing of taller build­ings. At six storeys you could dou­ble the pop­u­la­tion of Dublin with­out go­ing out­side the city bound­aries.”

O’Hara says this doesn’t bear scru­tiny. “What a lot of com­men­ta­tors for­get about, when they look to Copen­hagen, Paris and Barcelona for the six-storey model, is that it ap­plies over vast parts of the city, whole ar­rondis­e­ments.” Dublin how­ever, has a large stock of two-storey build­ings, Vic­to­rian and Ed­war­dian houses, right in the heart of the city, he says. “We’re not go­ing to de­mol­ish big tracts of the city to start again.”

For­mer coun­cil plan­ner and co-au­thor of Re­draw­ing Dublin, Paul Kearns agrees the sub­urbs are where the op­por­tu­ni­ties for height lie, but this is partly down to ear­lier missed op­por­tu­ni­ties closer to the city.

“We bot­tled it where it was pos­si­ble to have height, such as in the dock­lands 20 years ago. On the en­tire quay­sides east of IFSC, north and south, we failed to grasp the scale of the widened Lif­fey at that lo­ca­tion, the dis­tance from [the] his­toric core, and the op­por­tu­nity for green space.”

This pre­vi­ous re­luc­tance to per­mit height seems to have left some de­vel­op­ers risk-averse, Kearns says. Such cau­tion may have af­fected re­cent de­vel­op­ments at the mouth of the Lif­fey, where Kennedy Wil­son’s Cap­i­tal Dock devel­op­ment on Sir John Roger­son’s Quay will rise to 79m, while op­po­site, the Exo build­ing will make 76m. Ei­ther could have been 88m.

It seems un­likely that the re­moval of caps will re­sult in a high-rise ram­page, or that it will solve the hous­ing cri­sis. Rather it is just an­other ex­am­ple of the suc­ces­sive min­is­ters for hous­ing’s urge to be seen to be do­ing “some­thing” and a mis­guided be­lief that if they keep al­ter­ing the rules to suit de­vel­op­ers, even­tu­ally the de­vel­op­ers will be sat­is­fied and build. Yet the con­stant mov­ing of the goal posts, the lack of cer­tainty, en­cour­ages site own­ers to hold out for ever bet­ter deals.

Re­mak­ing Dublin as a six-storey city is an un­re­al­is­tic fan­tasy – it would re­quire a time ma­chine – but al­low­ing un­re­stricted height could see the “flip­pers” re­turn to the scene, with the con­se­quence of sites re­main­ing un­de­vel­oped for years ahead.

For the city to achieve the den­sity it needs, it is best to al­low the coun­cil to still de­ter­mine ar­eas ap­pro­pri­ate for height, which could en­com­pass the cur­rent mid-rise sites, but with­out pre-deter­min­ing a nu­mer­i­cal up­per limit of that height be­fore see­ing what site own­ers and their ar­chi­tects have to of­fer. Olivia out­lines re­ally well the de­bate on build­ing height. We need to sort this out, as the un­cer­tainty seems to be de­lay­ing devel­op­ment. Denser city cen­tres are also a cen­tral part of the Govern­ment’s na­tional in­vest­ment pro­gramme. This is largely a plan­ning is­sue, not a cost one. How­ever, pro­vid­ing denser city cen­tres also leads to pub­lic cost: if peo­ple are liv­ing in smaller pri­vate spa­ces, the pub­lic spa­ces around them need to have a high amenity value.

En­gi­neers Ire­land agrees with the need to in­crease den­sity in cities, towns and ru­ral cen­tres. Achiev­ing this through in­creased build­ing heights is ap­pro­pri­ate.

Ire­land is con­sid­er­ing a sig­nif­i­cant, if nec­es­sary change, through the gen­eral in­crease in height. There must be a num­ber of fo­cus ar­eas: util­ity and trans­port; fire and pub­lic safety; cost and af­ford­abil­ity; healthy and at­trac­tive com­mu­ni­ties; main­te­nance and fund­ing.

This dis­cus­sion of­ten fo­cuses on get­ting more units per hectare (more prof­its) and not on the to­tal­ity of what is in the build­ing and how it re­lates to what is built along­side it. Greater heights re­duce land-cost per unit, but this should not be the sole ba­sis on which height lim­its are raised.

And, should we be more will­ing to knock ex­ist­ing houses to cre­ate units with greater den­sity, par­tic­u­larly in ar­eas with age­ing pop­u­la­tions, so that peo­ple can stay in the places they have lived in all their lives but move to smaller and safer hous­ing units?

In the long term, hous­ing that is more sus­tain­able (in terms of re­duced en­vi­ron­men­tal de­mands) will pay for it­self.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: FUCHSIA MACAREE

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