Thursday 9 December 2010

Oh Ambassador, you're spoiling the neighbourhood

In leafy, exclusive Dublin 4, embassies with plans for expansion must keep neighbouring residents’ groups sweet

NEWS that the Belgian Embassy is likely to go ahead with plans to move its operations from Shrewsbury Road to its ambassador’s residence on Ailesbury Road in Dublin 4 will have residents of both roads nervous that their genteel world is about to be disrupted.

The move will leave yet another gaping hole on Shrewsbury Road, where a number of properties lie empty, including Walford, the property bought by Séan Dunne for €56 million at the height of the boom, and a number of others, including 1 and 3 Shrewsbury Road, owned by Derek Quinlan.

Over on Ailesbury Road, residents will be bracing themselves for the upheaval caused by the dust and noise of construction and the increase in embassy personnel coming to and from the Belgian property.

The Belgian embassy, which currently rents Shrewsbury House, at 2 Shrewsbury Road says it is likely to proceed with its plan next year to move its entire operation to 44-46 Ailesbury Road, the Belgian embassy residence.

It got planning permission several years ago for four small buildings to the rear of the house on Ailesbury Road which will be used as chancery offices

The Belgian embassy is only the latest in a series of embassies looking to streamline its operations and build 21st-century office accommodation.

More than half the foreign embassies in Dublin are located in Ballsbridge – 29 out of 52 – because it’s close to the city centre yet the exclusivity of its streets affords a certain amount of security and privacy.

On the downside, however, upgrading or expanding a premises in the area is not an easy process. Wikileaks aren’t the only thing that the world of diplomacy has to contend with. Behind every quiet, leafy, exclusive residential street in the embassy belt of Dublin 4 is a formidable residents group ready to mobilise at the first sign that a foreign government is planning a development that could disturb the status quo

The prospect of possible future battles with residents doesn’t seem to put them off locating there. An estate agent told us that four non-EU embassies are currently looking at property on Shrewsbury Road with a view to buying, taking advantage of the plummet in property prices.

While some of the wealthy property developer denizens of Ballsbridge have left the area (some amid a blaze of publicity), there remains a strong band of long-term residents who are well acquainted with the planning laws and who are tiring of the constant stream of activity in and out of some embassies.

Resident power prevailed in October when an attempt by Pennyvale Property Limited to get planning permission for embassy use for a large detached house at Fintragh, 11 Shrewsbury Road, was refused by Dublin City Council on the grounds that it was an unsuitable development in a conservation area.

Resident Anne Neary, a solicitor, commented in her submission to the council that she believed the real intention was to get commercial office use for the building. “The very word embassy conjures up an image in the mind’s eye of a family home of an ambassador and his or her family with the occasional formal social affair in the evening and a sedate office presence,” says Neary.

“Just because someone sticks the title ‘ambassador’ on the door of a small back office on the upper floor does not turn it into an embassy.”

Ailesbury Road residents’ assocation came across just such a scenario last year when Derek Quinlan attempted to convert a house at 43 Ailesbury Road from embassy use to office use. Quinlan subsequently lost a High Court challenge to An Bord Pleanála’s refusal of permission for the scheme. Counsel for an Bord Pleanála commented in court that the fact that there was already permission for embassy use “was not a springboard” to a different use.

Nuala Johnson, a resident who opposed Quinlan, refused to comment on the Belgian embassy development except to say the residents are on “good terms with the embassy” who have been “very co-operative”. She said however, they are vigilant “if there’s a demand for that” and have been keeping an eye on developments for the past 12 years.

The association wasn’t so reticent last year when the owner of 47 Ailesbury Road – where the Romanian Embassy is located – sought to have the dwelling changed to embassy use. “There are already a number of embassy offices/chancelleries which would be more appropriately situated in a commercial district,” was their observation to An Bord Pleanála.

Next door neighbour Dr John Crowe complained in his appeal that a number of embassies, including the Chinese and Polish, attracted “significant pedestrian and vehicular movements including queuing, protests, polling and tarmacking of gardens to increase parking”. The board subsequently ruled in favour of the embassy development.

Meanwhile, around the corner on Merrion Road, local residents have been scrutinising plans by the Indian Government for a consulate at 69 Merrion Road, which is now at pre-planning stage. It involves building a cultural centre and a 186sq m (2,000sq ft) staff quarters that would usurp the rear garden of the Victorian semi-detached house. The intensification of the site and the addition of a large extension to accomodate a lift shaft and stairs to the back of the house is of major concern to the neighbours who say they intend to contest the scheme fully.

The Indian government bought the two-storey over basement redbrick in 2008 for a figure thought to be around €4.75 million.

While most of the countries opening embassies here still favour residential streets in upmarket south Dublin suburbs, a number have opted for modern office premises in the south city centre, such as the Brazilian Embassy in the Harcourt Centre, Charlotte Way, the Slovenian Embassy on Nassau Street and the Australian and Canadian embassies both on Wilton Terrace. The Japanese run their embassy business out of a modest office above the Merrion Shopping Centre.

John O’Sullivan of Lisney says embassies’ budgets vary and quite a few rent “because they can’t justify buying a property here”.

“The ones opening offices here are mostly emerging or non-EU countries who now have a lot of citizens in the country and require an embassy. Many of the European nations no longer require a presence in each country.”

This is certainly the case for Sweden which closed its office in Dublin earlier this year and moved its ambassador to Ireland back to Stockholm.

In a reversal of the trend in Dublin 4 for residents to object to embassy developments, the Canadian ambassador, whose residence is on Oakley Road in Ranelagh, Dublin 6, is objecting to a planning application by Scoil Bhríde next door to extend its classrooms because of overlooking and an increase in illegal parking by parents collecting children from school.

The ambassador may be wishing that his country hadn’t sold Strathmore, the Killiney estate on nine acres, in 2007. It had been the ambassador’s residence for more than 50 years. It was sold as part of a Canadian initative to downsize its embassies around the world. Another reason given was that it was too far from the city centre. But it was also blissfully removed from the headaches that having neighbours entails.

Irish Times

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