Developer Seán Dunne is now left nursing huge debts with little to show for them
THIS IS a huge setback for developer Seán Dunne, for the bankers who so willingly lent him loads of money to buy “prime sites” in Ballsbridge and even for those commentators who believed that An Bord Pleanála simply had to rubber-stamp high-rise schemes for the area, to ensure that the banks would survive.
Ireland was a different country in autumn 2005 when Dunne shelled out a total of €379 million for the privilege of acquiring the Jurys and Berkeley Court hotel sites in the heart of Ballsbridge and talked about his ambitious plans to redevelop the combined seven-acre site for a high-rise, high-density scheme.
Ordinary people couldn’t believe that any developer would pay staggering sums of €53.7 – €57.5 million per acre for the two hotel sites, although these figures were soon trumped by others in what became a Klondyke-style gold rush rooted in a conviction that values could only go up.
Dunne was also betting that permission would be granted for a complex of buildings up to 32 storeys high, transforming Ballsbridge into “the new Knightsbridge” (even though that ritzy part of London has hardly any high-rise buildings), with some 600 luxury flats offering a Manhattan-like lifestyle.
Unbelievably, his vision was shared by senior officials of Dublin City Council, including then city architect Jim Barrett.
The Danish architect who designed the development told an An Bord Pleanála hearing that Barrett favoured the 37-storey design over a 32-storey tower originally proposed.
Senior planner Kieran Rose justified it all in his effusive report recommending that permission be granted, despite many objections from mainly well-heeled and articulate local residents.
He also endorsed the architects’ argument that the proposed high-rise cluster would give a “sense of place” to Ballsbridge.
Rose’s report, which formed the basis of city manager John Tierney’s decision to approve the scheme last March, even suggested that many people would find the “diamond-cut” 37-storey tower “exciting; in the words of [poet and Nobel laureate] Séamus Heaney, it could ‘catch the heart off guard and blow it open’.”
An Bord Pleanála has taken a different view, refusing permission for the entire scheme on five grounds – although Henning Larsen’s design director Ulrik Raysse can take some pride in the board’s reference to the “high quality of the architectural treatment of the individual buildings” proposed for the site.
But Dunne’s inflated project went down in flames because there was no basis in planning policy for permission to be granted. As An Taisce said in its appeal, not only did it “materially contravene” the city development plan, it was also “massively in excess of the plot ratio considered suitable” for Ballsbridge.
The Department of the Environment’s heritage division rowed in – with the express approval of Minister for the Environment John Gormley, who is one of the local TDs. It said the scheme would have “an undue negative impact on the adjacent architectural character and significance of the area . . . a fine Victorian suburb” of Dublin.
After lengthy consideration, An Bord Pleanála agreed. It said the scheme amounted to “gross over-development” of the site, as well as being “highly obtrusive” in the context of the visual amenity of the area, “making a radical change” in its urban form “at odds with the established character of Ballsbridge”.
Significantly, the board said “such change is not supported by any local or strategic objective in the [city] development plan. Nor had Ballsbridge been identified as suitable for high-rise treatment in the policy document Maximising the City’s Potential: A Strategy for Intensification and Height , published last January.
There were also precedents for the board’s ruling. In March 2005, six months before Dunne agreed to purchase the Jurys site, it rejected plans by telecoms tycoon Denis O’Brien for a 26-storey residential tower in Donnybrook on the grounds that its “excessive height and scale” would have an “overbearing” impact.
Dunne declared that, unless he got planning permission for his scheme in its entirety, he wouldn’t build anything on the two hotel sites.
Having racked up over €700 million on the acquisition of property in Ballsbridge, including AIB Bankcentre and Hume House, he is now left nursing huge debts with little to show for them.
With property values in Dublin plummeting, these pieces of real estate are probably worth less than half the huge money paid for them just three years ago. Number-crunchers in the banks with exposure to Dunne’s debts – particularly Ulster Bank – must be working overtime to calculate what can be salvaged now.
“What happened in Ballsbridge was planning in a vacuum or, more aptly, a bubble”, as colleague Kathy Sheridan and myself wrote in our book, The Builders . Like everyone else at the height of the boom, Seán Dunne, his bankers and the city planners were all carried away on a tide of hubris.
Ray Grehan, of Glenkerrin Homes, is still awaiting a decision from the appeals board on his plans for the former Veterinary College next door, for which he paid €171.5 million in November 2005. This scheme includes an 18-storey tower, and the board has requested further information on it before it makes a decision.
The huge amounts of money paid by Dunne and other developers for sites in Ballsbridge counted for nothing in the end, because An Bord Pleanála is required to make its decisions on the basis of “proper planning and sustainable development”.
By refusing permission, the board has officially buried the Celtic Tiger.