Sunday 9 August 2009

Estates of emergency

They were promised regeneration. Now the residents of many of Dublin's most under-privileged estates – half-boarded and destitute – face worsening not better conditions.

After developer Bernard McNamara pulled out of a scheme to redevelop local authority schemes last year, Dublin City Council established a special task force to review some of the capital's most run-down and bleak estates. Now, the review results are coming in – and many residents who thought their homes were in line for a facelift look set to be disappointed, and left living in half-boarded up estates.

Croke Villas

Hidden under the looming shadow of Croke Park and half boarded-up, Croke Villas stands as a stark contrast to the economically thriving stadium. The thousands who pass through the turnstiles of Croke Park need never come into contact with this estate just minutes away, which from the outside looks like a derelict site. However, at least 100 people are trapped in what they describe as limbo, now that their regeneration plans have fallen foul of developers and economics.

In a document circulated by Dublin City Council and seen by the Sunday Tribune, the current status of the city regeneration projects has been laid bare. In the cold context of Croke Villas it is stated: "Public Private Partnership competition abandoned. Working group established to examine all options for the re-development of this site." While the document goes on to re-affirm the council's commitment to the area, residents tell a different story. "We are considering setting up a new account and putting all the rent into it, and not giving it to the council until they start to open their eyes," says Paula Mitchell, long-time resident of the villas and chair of the Croke Park Residents' Association.

"The conditions here are dire. The maintenance has been cut [Dublin City Council announced a €30m cut in maintenance-funding recently] and we are living in dereliction. One girl who lives on the bottom floor is surrounded on both sides by nothing but empty boarded-up flats from those who were moved on. How can we live here anymore? This place is cold, it's creepy, desolate and unfriendly. It is dangerous – there are drug addicts on the site, and left any longer it will spiral out of control."

Mitchell articulates the disappointment of hundreds of other tenants across Dublin when she speaks of the broken promises on projects like Croke Villas. In the words of lord mayor of Dublin Emer Costello, on the promises of developers and public private partnership schemes: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." Costello is currently putting pressure on housing minister Michael Finneran to visit the villas in person "to see with his own eyes the conditions these people are living in – conditions no human should have to live in".

Now, the residents are taking matters into their own hands and looking to find an architect to draw up regeneration plans. They estimate the figure for the council to revitalise the area will be in the region of €6m, a relatively small amount, says Costello. "In comparison to other projects, it really is not that much. Given that these people decided not to leave and de-tenant as they had faith and believed in the commitment to re-build the community, it is a small price to ask.

"This wasn't just a housing regeneration. It was a social regeneration too. Residents waited and stuck with it. And so it is the people who bought into this model that are the ones who suffer the worst. Without a doubt, they are betrayed and they cannot be left high and dry while those who caused this mess walk away without consequence."

When Costello speaks of those who have scarpered, she refers to both councilors and developers. The empty flats in Croke Villas combined with a newly settled sense of despair have led to an increase in anti-social behaviour – something various different lobby groups maintain they had been brought to an all-time low by promises of change and better living conditions.

Pest infestations have become a common feature for the miniscule flats as the unoccupied units are left to fester and decay. One of the residents recently approached Dublin Inner City Partnership boss Patrick Gates to tell him she feared leaving her flat after coming out to find an addict snorting cocaine on her balcony. This is a practice the residents say was dying out when all involved looked towards a future of new homes.

A short while away in St Teresa's Gardens the situation is strikingly similar...

St Teresa's Gardens

When Dublin City Council established its regeneration task force for these predominantly inner city areas, three developments were categorised as priority and given the green light. These were O'Devaney Gardens, St Michael's Estate and Dominick Street. What has come to light, however, is that St Teresa's Gardens was fourth on that list – not quite important enough to get the coveted council consent.

Just last week, the news that residents dreaded arrived yet again in the form of a council committee meeting document outlining the task review results. "St Teresa's Gardens, review completed. Project board has decided to abandon the competition for this project." Seventy flats lie empty and the rest are occupied by those who opted into the plans.

"Of all the regeneration projects that we thought would be put on the back burner, we really thought that this would not be one of them. We are shocked, saddened and a certain sense of apathy, which is dangerous in itself, is starting to show here," says resident Kris Taylor. She has taken the same tack as those in Croke Villas and has started to look towards ways in which the community as a whole can renew the area. Ten years ago St Teresa's, in the midst of drug pushers, criminal activity and violence, began a project of renewal. Now a decade and a dozen promises later, Taylor is not hopeful for a future funded by developers or council bodies.

Worryingly, a growing number of suicides in the estate have added to the morale of devastation shrouding this area. "We are going to set up some kind of counselling board of our own. It looks like we will need to take matters into our own hands now from the full-scale regeneration right down to the recycling." There are some matters, however, that neither Taylor nor her neighbours can deal with themselves. "The estate is overflowing with rubbish, families are overcrowded in their small flats. Moreover, strangers are coming in among the area our children play in to buy their drugs off pushers. We are truly devastated."

Taylor believes this potent sense of disappointment is not relieved by the fact that the development came in at only fourth on the council's list and affirms that there is a palpable feeling that areas like O'Devaney Gardens and the attention given to their situation overshadowed the plight of St Teresa's Gardens.

Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh has been a constant campaigner within Dublin City Council to push this particular project back onto the agenda. Her brief of the area tallies with Taylor's. "Families of five and six are cramping into two bedroom flats. Teenagers are in bedrooms with younger siblings and some even with their parents.

"We owe the residents certain things from promising to push this matter further and seek funding for regeneration. But we are obliged to deliver them other things that have also been promised and not delivered. The residents were given a guarantee that maintenance would always be a top priority, but already, due to cutbacks, some of the caretaking services have been withdrawn, which is not acceptable." Ní Dhálaigh believes that St Teresa's Gardens and those living within cannot afford to be put on indefinite hold, and that the situation in areas like these may soon to turn sour should the waiting list grow any longer.

Mountainview Court

From the vantage point of an unacquainted passerby, Mountainview Court in Dublin 1 is nothing but a demolition site where run-down flat complexes once stood. To the informed observer, this site was to hold facilities necessary for the successful social regeneration of inner-city communities in Dublin. What was to be the site for a new senior citizen's home, the new location for the Lourdes Health Centre, a crèche and various other facilities is now nothing more than the rubble and remains left by the previous residents, who have now been moved on. According to the council documents: "This project has been terminated as the only remaining bidder could not secure funding. Alternative options for the re-development of this site are being examined."

Lord mayor Costello expresses particular rage over the shelving of this project, especially in relation to the Lourdes Health Centre, which was due to be relocated from its current – and insufficient – base on Sean MacDermott Street. This year, the centre celebrated 30 years of caring for the needs of the elderly in inner-city Dublin. With only three members of full-time staff caring for approximately 178 people a month, the relocation was set to give a major boost to the quality of service received by those attending. "It is a major let-down once again," says Costello. "They are now back to the drawing board on a possible, more suitable location. The work they do is of vital importance."

Countless other schemes like these have been put on "indefinite hold", and residents trapped in the nightmare that is regeneration continue tirelessly to campaign for a better quality of life and the enactment of promises made long ago. The message is clear in the eyes of Patrick Gates of the Inner City Partnership : "There must never again be a reliance on developers driven toward financial gain and not community benefit. There needs to be a complete re-look, and in a holistic way, or else the consequences will be fierce. Bricks and mortar alone will not solve this."

Sunday Tribune

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