Sunday 25 May 2008

'Bernard McNamara turned his back on us. It's up to the government now'

YOU might think there is no sound as forlorn as a night wind banging the front door of a deserted house, but there is. It is the political breast-beating that has been slapping the balconies of O'Devaney Gardens all week. Laments that "we sold these people false hope" and "we've failed them" swirl as uselessly as litter around the 50-year-old blocks of flats named in memory of a long-dead bishop.

Were it to be described in an auctioneer's brochure a year ago, when development land this near the Spire was making ?20m an acre, hyperbole would have been unnecessary for 14 acres beside the Phoenix Park and Heuston railway station and Collins Barracks museum and Smithfield and the Four Courts, the centre of the capital city touchable from the red Luas line.

Today the iron railings the builders erected to section off the first phase of construction give the whole place an appearance of dashed dreams, like Miss Havisham in her yellowed wedding dress.

Dishevelled men clutching bottles of spirits come from outside the estate at all hours to shelter in the lee of the four blocks that are boarded up like famine ship trunks and waiting to be demolished in the summer. The 64 tenants moved out temporarily more than three years ago. How time flies in a place where everything else stands still.

"We've the biggest back garden in the world, " Nadine Murphy boasts with a nod towards the Phoenix Park and a rueful smile. Next week, she and her fellow residents will be writing to two of that garden's denizens, the president and the Taoiseach, asking for support in their quest for a decent place to live.

"If they use public transport, they'll pass O'Devaney Gardens on the No 10, " Murphy offers helpfully. "Brian Cowen is going to be moving into a lovely new house in the park. He should look after his neighbours because we'll look after him." On the wall behind her head in the regeneration board's office on the ground floor of the farmost block, an A4 sheet of paper concludes: "People passed over for profit." Some men come and go outside in the hallway, piling machine-cut planks of cheap wood on the floor. "For the banners, " explains the young mother. "We're not going to give up the fight.

We're not bricks and mortar. We have hearts and our hearts have been broken."

It was all supposed to be so different. The band played, the flags and the marquee fluttered and the children got their faces painted on 12 February last year when Bertie Ahern and Bernard McNamara came to celebrate the signing of the regeneration project, eight years after the tenants first saw architects' drawings. The Taoiseach had dropped by in December 2005 to share the wonderful news with his Dublin Central constituents that a developer had been chosen. The McNamara/Castlethorn partnership won for their design and schedule submissions, though their projected gross revenues were less than the secondplaced bidder, Pierce Construction and the Boston-based Corcoran Jennison. The job was to have been finished by the end of next year.

"I met Bernard McNamara the day the agreement was signed, " Nadine recalls. "When I walked back home to my flat I really believed he had the community interest at heart because he said, 'Whatever I can do for the community I will do, ' and the only thing he's done is turn his back on us. It's up to the government now to get this built." The tenants, she says, are seeking meetings with the ministers for finance, the environment and housing.

Poignantly, the only guarantee they have secured from Dublin City Council is that the ?20,000 it provides for the annual Regeneration Festival in August is still available.

"We're running out of time, " says Antoinette Mullen, giving a guided tour of the three-bedroom flat she shares with her husband and their two teenage daughters. There is no space for a kitchen or dining table which means they eat all their meals from plates balanced on their laps. "We wanted to get a mortgage for the affordable housing and we've been holding off, " she explains, "but we're both 35 and we'll soon be at the age that we won't qualify for a mortgage." (Contrary to popular perception, everyone in O'Devaney Gardens who was interviewed for this article is employed and pays tax. ) Biting off more than he can chew Sympathy for Bernard McNamara, the multimillionaire former Fianna Fail county councillor from Lisdoonvarna, is as scarce in O'Devaney Gardens as optimism. Flimsy information about his Ailesbury Road mansion, with its swimming pool and ballroom, and his possession of a helicopter and the Shelbourne Hotel, give an edge to the flat-dwellers' feelings of dejection. They are in no mood to commiserate with the businessman for his troubles. "He's walking away from ?900m worth of work on five projects.

Wouldn't you wonder if he's bitten off more than he can chew? , " says Antoinette Mullen. "I don't think the government should ask him to build the new prison if he's going to leave us in the lurch."

(McNamara's company is building the new prison complex at Thornton Hall in north Dublin. ) Asked if the speculation that he is in financial trouble is true, in light of his withdrawal from the five Private-Public Partnership (PPP) schemes for Dublin City Council, Bernard McNamara's spokesman replied: "The decision in relation to these PPPs was taken because of a combination of two things - the downturn in the marketplace and fundamental changes to the schemes that would have required a new planning application." The spokesman confirmed that the developer "believes the PPPs are too complicated."

Bernard McNamara, who inherited his father's building company, Michael McNamara & Company, is the Greta Garbo of Irish property developers, despite his ubiquity on the Irish landscape.

He owns the Radisson in Galway, the Shelbourne and the Parknasilla Great Southern in Kerry. He sold his 14.5% share of the Superquinn chain last summer but retains his ownership of the Champion Sports retail chain. He is offloading the Ormond Hotel on the Dublin quays and the Grafton Street buildings which house the Richard Alan and Zerep shops, reputedly in order to assemble a portfolio of development properties at the back of the Westbury Hotel, as part of a consortium. He is developing the massive Glass Bottle site in Ringsend and is, according to his spokesman, on schedule and on budget with both this and his ?lm Park development, comprising 400 homes, 28,000sq m of offices, a 169-bed, four-star hotel, a leisure centre, creche and a private hospital. His name may be ubiquitous on the country's building sites, but his face is seldom seen and he does not do media interviews.

When he spoke to Dr Ivor Kenny for the 2001 book Leaders: Conversations with Irish Chief Executives McNamara concluded with this prescient observation: "The social requirements in many areas are changing dramatically because of our changed demographics. It is an interesting time to be involved. Hopefully we can make a contribution."

He spoke about an American company he has partnered in projects, extolling their formula of mixed-income schemes. "These developments are rented to one-third full-market-rent tenants;

one-third social-welfare tenants; and one-third assisted-income tenants. The management is supplemented by a significant social worker back-up and strong tenant involvement. This results in developments which have social housing integrated right through the scheme, but are also sought after by full-market-rent tenants because of their high quality and management. It is a surprise to most people when they learn that Eastern Health Board rent subsidies in Dublin are over IR£80m per annum and that much of it is in poor quality accommodation. There is a sizeable business opportunity here as well as an important social requirement."

The company he was alluding to is Corcoran Jennison, founded by an Irish immigrant from Roscommon, which has two Irish subsidiaries. The company partnered Pierce Construction in bidding for the five PPP schemes in Dublin that ground to a stop last week and came out second in the tender process behind Castlethorn/McNamara in four of them. In the fifth, the O'Devaney Gardens regeneration, it made the top monetary bid but lost out on design and schedule.

Asked if his company would be prepared now to finish the O'Devaney Gardens project if invited by Dublin City Council, Miles Byrne, director of development for Corcoran Jennison in Ireland, said:

"We haven't heard from them but, yes, absolutely, we can do it. We're so sad for the families in O'Devaney Gardens. I toured there on numerous occasions and met hundreds of residents. I had a sense they really had a group you could work with and create a new community. I was walking those hallways at 11 o'clock at night and people were welcoming me into their homes. There are so many people who live in those urine-stained and graffitied apartments and yet they keep those apartments so well."

'Where's plan B?'

In the office of the regeneration board, a small wooden model of the planned development sits on the table, amid leaflets demanding: "O'Devaney Gardens want a future. Where's plan B?" There was going to be a football pitch on the roof of one apartment block and various green oases on the ground. Less well-known is that two creches were planned; one for the private tenants and the other for the social-welfare tenants. The children, who seem to be in the majority among the residents, had been brought in for the consultation about the design of the community centre. The school of thought that private buyers would be deterred by the idea of living in close proximity with public housing residents is matched by the suspicion that rental investors and absent landlords would cause a rapid deterioration in quality.

"Mr McNamara has left us high and dry, " believes Ruth Murphy, a lone mother of four young children.

"The council has told us it can't sue for breach of contract because it would end up stalled in the courts for years and nothing would be happening here in the meantime. There's already an awful lot of money spent on consultations, going out to tender, legal work, architects. The council made sure that we as tenants had independent legal advice the whole way along. I think a quarter of a million euro was spent on Portakabins alone and there's temporary accommodation in three different sites for the people who've moved out."

But, as the rebuilding of O'Devaney Gardens turns into a standoff between the council and the developers, the decline that set in over a decade ago goes on inexorably. In July, the four earmarked blocks will be demolished. Buried among that rubble will be the dust of the community's playschool.

Sunday Tribune

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