Pro­tect lo­cal ser­vices and vi­tal ur­ban ameni­ties

Keep the city alive by pro­tect­ing much-needed shops, fuel sta­tions and other lo­cal con­ve­niences

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Ciarán Han­cock

With the econ­omy in boom ter­ri­tory again, ev­ery well-lo­cated ser­vice sta­tion, builders yard, car rental lot, sports ground, mo­tor show­room, and car parks at­tached to pubs, churches and schools in Dublin are once again in the sights of prop­erty de­vel­op­ers.

Noth­ing will be safe as de­vel­op­ers hunt for plots that could ac­com­mo­date lu­cra­tive hous­ing or apart­ment schemes. Their cause is as­sisted by the Govern­ment’s de­sire to build houses quickly to sat­isfy years of pent-up de­mand, and to ap­pease vot­ers an­gered by not be­ing able to get on the hous­ing lad­der and be­ing charged rip-off rents.

And while there are good ar­gu­ments for sweat­ing prime city sites for hous­ing, there is also the risk that many neigh­bour­hoods will end up los­ing a host of im­por­tant lo­cal ser­vices that they once took for granted, and that are part of the ev­ery­day fab­ric of those com­mu­ni­ties.

Search Google Maps for a fuel ser­vice sta­tion in the in­ner city and you’ll get just two an­swers: the Cir­cle K/Topaz sta­tion on Usher’s Quay, and the Top fore­court on Amiens Street.

Many closed in the last boom, to be re­placed by hous­ing or of­fice de­vel­op­ments. So if you’re run­ning low on fuel in the city make sure to be close to the quays.

Cork-born fi­nancier Neil O’Leary cre­ated the Topaz fuel ser­vices com­pany (now re­branded as Cir­cle K), hav­ing ac­quired, and then merged, the oper­a­tions of Shell and Sta­toil.

With de­vel­op­ers knock­ing down their door, Topaz sold eight prime sites (seven in Dublin and one in Dou­glas in Cork) for about ¤80 mil­lion, and fo­cused on build­ing fore­courts close to mo­tor­ways to ser­vice truck­ers and com­mer­cial fuel card cus­tomers.

A plan to sell a ser­vice sta­tion op­po­site Don­ny­brook rugby sta­dium to a house builder for a large sum was credit-crunched.

“They were crazy days,” O’Leary tells The Ir­ish Times. “We wouldn’t have made that amount of money from op­er­at­ing the sta­tions in 50 years.”

While good for Topaz’s bot­tom line, for many con­sumers it has meant long drives to fill up their ve­hi­cles, or to buy a late-night pint of milk.

Sim­i­lar con­sid­er­a­tions were in play when the Jurys Doyle group sold its two Balls­bridge ho­tels (Jurys and the Berke­ley Court) on a com­bined 6.8 acre site to Seán Dunne for ¤400 mil­lion in sep­a­rate trans­ac­tions more than a decade ago.

Car show­rooms

Hote­lier Pat McCann, who was chief ex­ec­u­tive of Jurys Doyle at the time, said the two ho­tels were mak­ing about ¤10 mil­lion in profit an­nu­ally. It would have taken 40 years to make the same money as Dunne was of­fer­ing.

“We were never go­ing to value it as ¤400 mil­lion for a ho­tel op­er­a­tion,” he said. “There was just no way they were ever go­ing to get to that level as ho­tels.”

Fur­ther changes to the land­scape of Dublin are afoot. In re­cent weeks, the own­ers of three high-pro­file car show­rooms in Dublin – Mur­phy & Gunn in Mill­town and Gowan Group on the Mer­rion Road and in Gle­nageary – have an­nounced plans to close and sell the premises.

Both sit on prime res­i­den­tial sites and are likely to be re­de­vel­oped for a mix of houses, apart­ments and re­tail.

The time can’t be far off when peo­ple liv­ing in Dublin will have to trek out to the Naas Road or some vast ware­house or re­tail park close to the M50 for a new car, to buy a car­pet, or to shop for DIY, fur­ni­ture or bi­cy­cles.

Con­trast that to many Euro­pean cities, where neigh­bour­hoods are dom­i­nated by apart­ment blocks but where you will find a wide range of ser­vices – re­pair garages, cob­blers, hard­ware stores, ser­vice sta­tions, fur­ni­ture shops, and car rental, close by.

In 2015, Barcelona’s city coun­cil in­cluded 228 shops, bars and restau­rants in a new cat­a­logue for pro­tec­tion of its ur­ban her­itage. The aim was to pre­vent the shops from dis­ap­pear­ing due to the pres­sure of the rental mar­ket and was part of a plan for the pro­tec­tion and pro­mo­tion of ur­ban qual­ity.

O’Leary makes that point, that un­like in many Euro­pean cities, ser­vice sta­tions can’t be lo­cated within 100 feet of res­i­dences here. “Our plan­ning laws state that fuel sta­tions can’t be lo­cated un­der apart­ment blocks. They just don’t al­low it. But that’s what hap­pens in a lot of built-up cities around the world.”

Vi­tal ser­vices

There’s re­sis­tance in many ar­eas of Dublin to apart­ments or houses be­ing used for short-term let­tings on Airbnb or other plat­forms, be­cause of the neg­a­tive im­pact it can have on a com­mu­nity.

Sim­i­larly, we should be con­cerned about a loss of vi­tal ser­vices in those same neigh­bour­hoods sim­ply to sat­isfy the de­mand for res­i­den­tial devel­op­ment and the de­sire of prop­erty de­vel­op­ers to gen­er­ate large prof­its.

Lo­cal au­thor­i­ties should use their zon­ing pow­ers to en­sure that pro­tec­tion is of­fered to small traders who pro­vide nec­es­sary ser­vices, and so that res­i­dents don’t have to travel miles by car to have their shoes re­paired, buy a bunk bed, or a tin of paint.

BLUE-SKY THINK­ING FOR DUBLIN Have you a pro­posal – big or small – that could make a real dif­fer­ence to Dublin and its cit­i­zens? We in­vite you to con­tribute to this se­ries of ar­ti­cles at irish­times.com/cap­i­tal­ideas. Your re­sponse may ap­pear in The Ir­ish Times or on irish­times.com

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