Tuesday 11 March 2008

Renewal of inner city areas left high and dry

Dublin City Council's decision to grant permission for a high-rise cluster in Ballsbridge has no real basis in planning policy, writes Frank McDonald .

SECURING DUBLIN'S position as a "dynamic, mixed use, visually attractive, world-class city" was the driving force behind the decision to grant planning permission for the redevelopment of the Jurys-Berkeley Court hotel sites in Ballsbridge, according to the planning report.

The report, compiled by senior planner Kieran Rose, is full of American references, including a comparison between the proposed scheme and the Rockefeller Centre in New York, "with its integrated composition of towers, a pedestrian mall, plaza and ice-skating rink".

Although the planners omitted its centrepiece, a 37-storey tower on the axis of Pembroke Road, because its height "tends towards the excessive", it is clear that they were enthralled by the high-rise vision put forward by Danish architects Henning Larsen.

The planners saw it as "a radical affirmation for Ballsbridge" and accepted the architects' argument that creating a high-rise cluster in this area "will have a significant, positive and defining influence in identifying a 'sense of place' for Ballsbridge".

Mr Rose cites another American source for the public debate on New York's early skyscrapers, with some seeing them as symbols of "unbridled materialism", while for others they were symbols of "a young and assertive nation with its best years still ahead".

His report asserts that Ballsbridge has "a national function", as exemplified by the Lansdowne Road rugby grounds, the RDS, the AIB headquarters and the US and other embassies. "Even the postal code [ Dublin 4] has a place in the national consciousness".

Referring to the average floor area of 140 sq metres for the proposed 532 apartments, he writes: "This is a quantum leap in spaciousness. In a sense, these apartment homes can be seen as the 21st-century equivalent to the large Victorian houses in Ballsbridge".

He also suggests the "cultural resistance" to apartment living in Ireland can be overcome in much the same way as it was in New York in the late 19th century when well-to-do families chose apartments for their "luxury and comfort".

Certainly, none but the wealthy would be able to afford any of the apartments envisaged for the two hotel sites in Ballsbridge. All of the "social and affordable" housing is to be provided by developer Seán Dunne on other sites in the Dublin South East area.

But the key issue in planning terms is whether there is any basis at all for approving high-rise clusters in Ballsbridge, including Mr Dunne's scheme or the development of up to 15 storeys recently approved by council planners for the adjoining Veterinary College site.

The truth is that there isn't. Just six weeks ago, the council published a policy document, Maximising the City's Potential: A Strategy for Intensification and Height, identifying suitable locations in the city for high-rise buildings - and Ballsbridge was not among them.

There is no reference to this in Mr Rose's report. All it could cite was an earlier (1999) study by urban designers DEGW suggesting Beggar's Bush as a potential location, with Mr Dunne's planning consultants RPS contending that his Ballsbridge site would be "superior".

The indulgence being shown by the planners towards high-rise schemes for the area also runs counter to 20 years of planning policy designed to take the heat off Ballsbridge and encourage developers to build in the inner city and other areas needing renewal.

Mr Rose was senior planner for the south inner city, where the fruits of his sterling work can be seen today in places like Cork Street and Dolphin's Barn. Michael Stubbs, assistant city manager in charge of planning, was another key figure in that area's rejuvenation.

It beggars belief that - along with chief planning officer Dick Gleeson and city manager John Tierney - they are now prepared to roll out a red carpet for high-rise buildings in Ballsbridge, while denying this has anything to do with the extravagant prices paid for sites.

In the changed economic circumstances we are facing, particularly in the property sector, the consequences of such a "policy" are clear: developers will gravitate towards high-value areas like Ballsbridge, leaving parts of Dublin that really need renewal high and dry.

The Irish Times


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