Seán Dunne's controversial plan for his Ballsbridge site has the potential to change Dublin 4 forever. But even if it gets the go-ahead, will the changed economic climate scupper the scheme?
IT IS NOW THREE years since everyone was stunned by the staggering sums of money being shelled out for pieces of real estate in Ballsbridge. That famous spree started with Seán Dunne snapping up Jurys Hotel for €53.7 million per acre, followed by his acquisition of the Berkeley Court next door for €57.5 million per acre.
In what recalled the frenzy of a Klondyke-style gold rush, Dunne was soon trumped by Ray Grehan paying just over €81 million per acre for the adjoining Veterinary College site in November 2005, with the site occupied by the college's faculty building making more than €95 million per acre when it was sold in May 2006.
Ah yes, those were the days when onward and upward was the only way to go. Developers like Dunne and Grehan were very bullish about the prospects, both describing the deals they had done as "once in a lifetime" opportunities to acquire prime sites in the heart of Dublin 4. As far as they could see it, there wasn't a downside.
Just like the banks that were then so willing to lend them money, both Dunne and Grehan confidently expected to make millions from developing their platinum properties for high-rise, high-density, mixed-use schemes of luxury apartments, swish offices and designer shops. They also believed that the planners would go for it.
Within hours of winning the tender for Jurys, Dunne was talking about turning Ballsbridge into "the new Knightsbridge". A landmark tower up to 32 storeys high would be the centrepiece of a "top-class residential development" of up to 600 luxury flats that would offer residents the lifestyle of "top apartments in Manhattan".
Whether Dunne will get his way depends on the outcome of a Bord Pleanála oral hearing opening next Tuesday and expected to run for at least two weeks. After the presiding planning inspector writes a report dealing with all of the issues raised, it will then be up to the board to decide - probably by the end of November.
ON THE ADVICE of Joan O'Connor, a former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), top-flight architects from Ireland and abroad were invited to take part in a design competition for the Jurys- Berkeley Court site; Dunne flew them all over it by helicopter, as some hadn't been in Dublin before then.
Ulrik Raysse of Danish architects Henning Larsen, who won the competition, was one of those first-timers. "I didn't know much about Ireland then, except that it had blossomed a lot while Denmark was growing more gradually," he said. But he thought Dublin was quite like Copenhagen - "historical cities . . .that haven't been destroyed". However, he managed to offend many Irish architects by saying he hadn't seen much evidence of "excellence in architecture" to match Dublin's reputation for literature, poetry, music and theatre.
Unveiling his vision of Ballsbridge, he said: "What we're trying to do is to raise the bar here, by daring to create a place that's unique." What the Danish architects were offering was something they would never get away with in Copenhagen - a dense, high-rise cluster with a 37-storey "diamond-cut" skyscraper as its centrepiece. When Jim Barrett, then city architect, described this as "a very sculpural, tapered piece", it must have been music to Seán Dunne's ears.
The developer was even more delighted by the effusive endorsement his bold scheme received from senior planner Kieran Rose, who dealt with the planning application. He saw it as a "high quality, carefully considered, innovative and creative scheme that will contribute significantly to the betterment of the local area and the city".
But the decision to approve it last March was made not by Dublin City Council's elected members, but by city manager John Tierney, who seems to have concurred with the notion that in some way a high-rise cluster in Ballsbridge would secure Dublin's position as a "dynamic, mixed use, visually attractive, world-class city".
Tierney went along with his view that the scheme would have a "significant, positive and defining influence in identifying a 'sense of place' for Ballsbridge", which Rose saw as having a "national function" - exemplified by Lansdowne Road rugby ground, the RDS, the AIB headquarters and various embassies in Ailesbury Road.
"Even the postal code has a place in the national consciousness," he wrote. But his report was full of north American references, likening Dunne's proposed development to New York's Rockefeller Center. It also quoted trendy sociologist Richard Florida, whose highly-mobile "creative class" might be impressed by this sort of stuff.
Only because of "the lack of sufficient policy support for a building of 37 storeys", that part of the plan had to be refused. But Rose's report made clear that an amended version of this soaring tower would get the green light: "It is the strong view of the planning authority that a landmark building of architectural excellence is required at this location."
This is now a matter for An Bord Pleanála to decide, following receipt of an unprecedented 127 appeals in the Jurys-Berkeley Court case. And what made the figure even more remarkable was that 87 of them are in favour of Dunne's scheme, including one from his son John and others emanating from friends in his home county of Carlow.
Appellants in favour of the development also include Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan, who is cultural adviser for the project; public relations consultant Bill O'Herlihy and Shrewsbury Road resident Michael Maughan, founder of WHPR, as well as four solicitors' firms, three builders and four estate agents/ chartered surveyors. On the opposite side are 11 residents' associations in the Ballsbridge area, all of whom are seeking to have the proposed development rejected in its entirety, and billionaire financier Dermot Desmond, a resident of Ailesbury Road, who has warned that the proposed 15-storey embassy block would be a "sitting duck" for terrorists.
Coincidentally, Dunne is battling against plans by O'Malley Construction to build seven neo-Edwardian houses on the former Chester Beatty Library site behind his home in Shrewsbury Road - using similar arguments (excessive bulk, height and scale) to those being made by objectors to his Jurys-Berkeley Court scheme.
He has also had to contend with a strongly-worded submission from the Department of the Environment's heritage division, which describes the scheme as "excessively high", saying it would have a "significant adverse impact" on the character of Ballsbridge and potentially on the southside Georgian core around Fitzwilliam Square.
Ray Grehan was fortunate that the Department appears to have overlooked his plans to redevelop the two-acre Veterinary College site between Pembroke Road and Shelbourne Road, which he bought from the State for €171.5 million in November 2005; with so much of the focus on Dunne, Grehan's scheme might have slipped through.
Designed by Dublin-based HKR Architects, the proposed development includes a 15-storey residential tower - perhaps aptly named "No.1 Ballsbridge" - and three office blocks up to nine storeys high as well as cafes, restaurants, boutiques and an arts centre laid out around a central square and new dog-legged pedestrian street.
Nonetheless, this scheme attracted more than 20 appeals to An Bord Pleanála, after Dublin City Council's management decided to approve it with very few amendments. What the board decides in Grehan's case, following a recent oral hearing that went on for three days, will be a harbinger of things to come for Dunne and others.
THE APPEALS BOARD has taken a generally sceptical and often negative view of random high-rise proposals, especially in the absence of a local area plan (LAP). And in the case of Ballsbridge, not only is there no such plan but a draft LAP was emphatically rejected by councillors a few months before Grehan and Dunne lodged their planning applications.
Neither is Ballsbridge specifically mentioned as a suitable location for high-rise development in the city council management's draft policy, Maximising the City's Potential: A Strategy for Intensification and Height , which was published last January - before the favourable decisions were made on Grehan's and Dunne's planning applications.
In March 2005, for example, An Bord Pleanála refused permission to telecoms tycoon Denis O'Brien for a landmark 26-storey residential tower in Donnybrook, between the Garda and fire stations. The "excessive height" of this tower, it said, would "detract from the established character, appearance and amenities" of the area.
Of course, given the huge sums of money invested in sites in Ballsbridge at the height of the boom, there was a school of thought - given voice by The Irish Times Business Editor John McManus - that the developers involved in these speculative gambles would have to get their way, simply because they were too big to be allowed fail.
"The sort of bloodbath that would ensue if a big developer got into trouble would cost the taxpayer billions to fix. Confronted with that sort of reality, it is possible to see Dunne getting his tower blocks and his peers getting whatever it is that they need. Manhattan in Ballsbridge may be just another Celtic Tiger chicken coming home to roost."
SINCE McMANUS WROTE that in September 2007, the property market in Dublin and the economic outlook in general have changed utterly. The credit crunch, falling values, rising inflation and unemployment - particularly in construction - and a growing number of new homes left unsold (at least 14,000 in Dublin alone) have all taken their toll.
So even if Ray Grehan and Seán Dunne were to get planning permissions on appeal - and that's a big "if" - in all probability, they would be subject to the scale of their proposals being substantially reduced. In that case, would the scaled-down versions be worth developing at all in the current climate when almost nobody is buying? According to commentators such as Morgan Kelly, professor of economics at UCD, the property market is likely to remain in the doldrums for three to five years. And with so much money spent on sites at the height of the boom, the real issue is whether the developers involved can afford to hold their expensive sites until then.
It is ironic, despite all the blather in recent years about Dublin needing to reach for the sky, that Liberty Hall (completed in 1965) remains the tallest building in the city. And though Siptu plans to demolish it to make way for a taller structure, there are many who would like to see it retained as an icon of modernism in Ireland.
Certainly, it would be a more fitting monument to our heroic aspirations as a society in the relatively innocent 1960s than anything that's likely to rise up from the sedate purlieus of the old Pembroke Estate in Ballsbridge.
The Irish Times