Wednesday 30 July 2008

New thoughts on high-rises

THE DECISION by An Bord Pleanála to approve scaled-down plans by Arnotts for its ambitious "Northern Quarter" development brings into focus again the conflicting views on plans for tall buildings in Dublin.

On the one side, we have property developers with vaulting visions, gung-ho architects with notions of putting their names on landmarks and the city council management's vision of a high-rise future in its draft policy document, Maximising the City's Potential: A Strategy for Intensification and Height. On the other, we have a raft of decisions by the appeals board rejecting, or substantially reducing, random high-rise building proposals, together with an increasingly interventionist stance by the Department of the Environment's heritage division and a sceptical, even antagonistic, public apparently incapable of being persuaded that Dublin needs Manhattan-like clusters of tall buildings.

An Bord Pleanála has been marking the planners' cards on a fairly consistent basis over the past few years, citing all sorts of reasons for overturning the decisions they have made. But the main reason usually relates to the absence of any planning framework under which high-rise proposals could be justified, including the 16-storey tower initially proposed by Arnotts. The department's heritage division, after a long period of enforced silence under previous ministers, seems to have been given more leeway by John Gormley to intervene in the planning arena. It characterised developer Seán Dunne's scheme for the Jurys-Berkeley Court site in Dublin's Ballsbridge as "excessively high".

Despite all the bluster during the boom about going higher, Liberty Hall, which was completed more than 40 years ago, is still the tallest building in Dublin. An Bord Pleanála departed from the advice it received from the department and, more explicitly, from one of its own senior planning inspectors to grant permission for the redevelopment of the Clarence Hotel on Wellington Quay; it would appear that the board was dazzled by the Foster + Partners' design. The end-result, if it is realised, will have an enormous impact on the Liffey Quays. Now, the new owners of the Bank of Ireland headquarters on Baggot Street are hoping to win approval for plans to add two floors to what is already a bulky building in a highly sensitive context.

It is noteworthy - and very welcome - that Dublin City Council's planners are reviewing their draft policy document following the overwhelmingly negative reaction it received at a series of public consultation sessions in June. Michael Stubbs, assistant city manager in charge of the planning department, told The Irish Times that the draft would be substantially changed before it was presented to the council's planning and economic development committee in September, to reflect public opposition to random high-rise proposals and place more emphasis on achieving higher densities in the context of statutory local area plans (Laps). Indeed, in a democratic society, public representatives must be involved in framing all such plans - as they are in the case of Laps - instead of leaving crucial decisions to unelected officials.

The Irish Times

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