Wednesday 7 January 2009

Plans for city subverted by height arguments

ANALYSIS: Ever-optimistic Dublin city planners insist that they must set out the right policy on high-rise development before the the capital once again sees a forest of tower cranes on the skyline, writes Frank McDonald , Environment Editor

IT SEEMS almost surreal to be discussing high-rise planning policy in Dublin at a time when the construction industry is almost at a standstill; with so many newly-built apartment buildings and office blocks vacant, there doesn't appear to be much point.

But the ever-optimistic city planners insist that they must set out the right policy framework long before the the city once again sees a forest of tower cranes on the skyline.

What may queer the pitch is the nervousness of city councillors in the run-up to local elections in June.

Unlike their colleagues on county councils in Dublin and elsewhere, the city councillors are not "pro-development at any price".

Left-wing councillors are very conservative on issues of height and density, while many others don't want to be seen as developers' friends.

As a result, there is a gulf between the planners' aspirations to create a more sustainable city - as they would see it - and councillors voicing the sceptical views of their constituents, many of whom live in two-storey houses and want to keep their areas high-rise free.

The planners acknowledge that there have been "difficulties" in communicating their message that Dublin needs more dense development, including clusters of tall buildings - especially in areas that are well served by high-quality public transport.

They are at pains to emphasise that the draft policy on high-rise first unveiled last January has been revised in the light of reservations expressed by councillors and members of the public.

Most importantly, high-rise would now only be permitted in designated areas.

They also point out that the existing Dublin City Development Plan, adopted in 2005, already provides for higher density residential schemes. What they are now seeking to address is a lacuna in the plan on the issue of where high-rise buildings might be located.

The city planners are adamant that the Georgian core would be fully protected - even in terms of views from the squares of Trinity College - and say their draft policy "gives full vent to preserving the historical character of the city", including residential conservation areas.

"Place-making" is one of the justifications offered for high-rise in a generally low-rise city, especially throughout the suburbs.

"Character analysis" has also formed the basis for choosing all of the areas designated for taller buildings of 16 storeys or more.

"We've looked at the natural topography and at the historic height of the inner city," one senior planner said. "For example, the Guinness brewery is on a ridge, giving a traditional shoulder of height. We will have to take another look at it in the context of Diageo's plans.

"We've also had a chance to think again about the ridge approach in the Digital Hub area, where high-rise planning applications were refused.

"That's pulled back the debate from a very extreme level, and we're now looking at a restricted number of buildings up to 12 storeys".

The planners now accept that the 32-storey tower planned for a site opposite Heuston Station is now unlikely to go ahead, given the current economic environment. Designed by Paul Keogh Architects, it was enthusiastically approved in 2005 by An Bord Pleanála.

One of the primary justifications given for building taller is that the city would run out of development land in 2010, with the exception of Docklands and Grangegorman, so the planners argue that the underlying objective must be to consolidate the city.

"Industrial land is very underused, so it's a 'no brainer' that the Naas Road represents opportunity for more intensive development," said another senior planner.

But he accepted that any notion of demolishing the predominantly two-storey city was "politically not on".

According to another senior planner, "the height issue has completely subverted any discourse on good urbanism, so we need to get stuck in and make progress on that" - citing Bucholz McEvoy's Elmpark scheme on Merrion Road as a "very brave example of a new typology".

The planners deny that there is any rush in putting their new policy in place, saying it's already under discussion for two years.

"If it's pushed on to the next development plan review, it's going to be another two years before we have any policy," one of them warned.

Irish Times

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