Sunday 1 November 2009

A to Zoe of Liam Carroll: King of the shoeboxes

Within moments of entering Barrie Kidd's home at the Hardwicke complex in Dublin's Smithfield, you can tell it was built by the man known as the "shoebox king". It bears all the hallmarks of troubled developer Liam Carroll's building style.

Although the space itself is bright and cheery, this is more a testament to the pride which its owner shows for his home than the quality of the build.

The dimly lit long corridors of the apartment block, complete with rows of doors leading off the main passageway, immediately tell that Carroll's oft-repeated development formula has been heavily employed here.

Another sign is the apartment's narrow hallway leading to a small living room, with an even tinier 'galley'-type kitchen on one side of the room. So too is its cramped bathroom, thin walls, and the lack of storage space.

Kidd says there are around 300 apartments in the sprawling complex, most of which are investment properties rented out by their owners.

Again, this is typical of Carroll's 'pile-em-high' approach to development, which is evident in most of his other apartment complexes around the city landscape.

Kidd chose the Hardwicke mainly due to its location, and bought there in the late 1990s just after it was built.

"To be honest with you, I quite enjoy it. It is quite central and because I own it myself that makes a difference, I look after it," he says. "I put the electric shower in myself. The bath was here. I put down the tiles on the wall and floor too. They had finished them with tiling but it fell down so it had to be replaced.

"The apartments are not made for storage... Every bit of stuff I have has to be hidden away. It's a real chore."

* * *

Liam Carroll started his career in development 20 years ago with a rather unremarkable apartment block and townhouse scheme at Fisherman's Wharf in Ringsend, Dublin 4.

His company Zoe Developments – and associated companies with names such as Danninger and Royceton – went on to thrive during the following two decades.

Frequently, his calling card involved buying inner-city sites that no one else would touch, availing of the various urban regeneration tax breaks in the process. He is said to have built more apartments in Dublin city centre than all of his rivals put together.

These included developments at Bachelors Walk, Arran Quay, Ushers Quay, Dorset Street, Brunswick Street, Charlotte Quay, Jervis Street, Abbey Street, much of Mountjoy Square, and in Christchurch and Smithfield.

Later on, it also included the landmark Gasworks development on Barrow Street, as well as hotels and other commercial developments further afield.

Now, Carroll's empire is in crisis and he is in serious debt to the banks, which are owed a total of €1.3bn by Zoe.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ordered the liquidation of key companies in the group following a protracted court battle with ACC bank, which is owed €136m by Zoe companies.

Meanwhile, Carroll's two Tallaght hotels – the Glashaus Hotel and the Tallaght Cross Hotel – have closed and their rooms are being rented out as apartments.

But while his business empire may be crumbling around him, Liam Carroll's legacy remains in the architecture he leaves behind.

Despite attempts to contact him for an interview, the notoriously media shy Carroll was unavailable to speak to the Sunday Tribune.

One former associate describes him as "very hands on – he did every deal and signed every cheque".

His was very much an inhouse operation, initially at least even eschewing the use of architects. "He was renowned for sticking to minimum sizes as allowed for in the legislation. He didn't really look towards sustainability or anything like that – it was all cheap and cheerful. If there was a less expensive way of doing it, he would do it," the former associate says.

"For example, he used slimline electric storage heaters which are major consumers of energy. It was very much that the fabric of the building would be to the standard, and nothing above. So wall insulation would be kept to a minimum too. He wouldn't go the extra mile.

"It was a nightmare place over the years for architects to work, especially those with a bit of flair. It wasn't about winning awards – it was about getting the job done and moving on."

"So he would look at plans that had been drawn up and say: 'We're not using stainless steel. We'll use galvanised mild steel', which is less costly."

* * *

The results of Carroll's approach are to be seen all around the capital city.

Posing as a potential tenant, we visited a three-bed townhouse located where it all began – Fisherman's Wharf in Ringsend.

Situated close to the Eastlink toll bridge, it is directly across the Liffey from the 02 arena with cars whizzing by at all hours of the day and night.

Twenty years on, time has not been kind to the property.

You enter from the street, and are greeted by an almost obligatory long narrow corridor, with an equally narrow kitchen to the right as you walk in.

Then there are cramped stairs, leading to a small living room with dated furniture that would not look out of place in an episode of the Royle Family comedy television show.

Next door is a small single bedroom, with a bed and little else apart from a closet.

Up another narrow flight of stairs and there are two more small double bedrooms.

The main bathroom is basic – a bathtub, electric shower, stand-alone sink unit and toilet. There is clear evidence of mould on the ceiling.

We are told that the landlord decided to drop the asking price for the rent – to €1,150 a month – rather than invest in doing the place up.

Next we visit a two-bed apartment at Bertram Court in Christchurch, Dublin 8.

It is accessed via wrought iron gates, behind which is a gravel driveway with cars parked in front of towering apartment blocks.

This apartment has a small living room, with an archway segregating it from the rest of the room. Behind this is a tiny galley kitchen.

The bedrooms are located at the back of the apartment. They can fit a double bed but not much else. It is on the market for €1,200 a month.

On the other side of the city, Peter [not his real name] shows us around his one-bed apartment on Mountjoy Square.

He moved in recently and doesn't plan to stay there for too long. It soon becomes apparent why.

He has placed his TV on the mantelpiece, next to a small table and two chairs squeezed into the corner.

The small galley kitchenette is clearly dated, its white fixtures and fittings well past their prime.

"I don't do a whole lot of cooking, to be honest with you," Peter confides.

With two of us in the living room, it already feels pretty cramped. Peter has had to leave a lot of his other personal belongings in storage with family members.

"There just wasn't the room here."

He says the lack of a built-in wardrobe eats into the space of the bedroom. The green carpet, worn and tatty, has definitely seen better days

"The worst thing is probably the lack of storage, "he says. "It needs to be repainted too. I was looking for a short-term lease so it suits me for the moment. Even two people [there is a double bed] would struggle for space, I think."

* * *

Carroll may have stuck to the 'letter of the law' when it came to building regulations. But sometimes he did not even do this much when it came to the people who worked for him (see panel).

Building Energy Rating (BER) certificates for several developments built by Carroll, seen by the Sunday Tribune, also suggest another hidden side-effect of his 'no-frills' approach to development.

Often, they are very poorly insulated, scoring as low as 'E' on a scale which only goes to G.

The exception to this is the 'prestige' Gasworks development on Barrow Street, built later on in his career, where most ratings are in the region of Bs and Cs.

As we prepare to leave the Hardwicke, Barrie Kidd points out the crumbling paint on many of the balconies and railings overlooking the common areas.

These are a major bugbear for residents, he says, but cannot be fixed without major ­hassle.

He says this is because Carroll chose to use cheaper aluminium in their construction, which was then painted over to improve its grey appearance.

The paint on the aluminium railings started to peel within one or two years of the apartment being built, Kidd says, and cannot be painted over due to the type of material used.

But it got the job done cheaply, served its purpose for the time being, allowing Carroll at least to move on.

Do not enter: Liam Carroll's colourful safety record

"You are entitled to make profits on the sweat of your workers, but you are not entitled to make profit on the blood and lives of your workers. You are a disgrace to the construction industry and ought to be ashamed of yourself."

So spoke Justice Peter Kelly in the High Court 12 years ago, addressing Liam Carroll in a hearing precipitated by the death of James Masterson, a 24-year-old construction worker, who fell to his death on Carroll's Charlotte Quay site.

Kelly had earlier agreed to an interim injunction closing the Zoe Developments site in question, having heard that 13 breaches of the health and safety regulations had been noted there.

Referring to Carroll's company, he added: "This defendant that you are responsible for is a criminal, and a recidivist criminal at that, and is so thanks to you."

One close friend of James Masterson, who worked with him on the Charlotte Quay site, last week described him as a "gentleman" who would "do anything for you".

His father, Dinny, has since died. Unfortunately, James Masterson's death was not the first such tragedy on a Zoe site.

On 23 January 1990, a worker on one of its sites at Grove Road, Rathmines, Dublin 6, was crushed to death when a crane collapsed on him.

The company was subsequently found guilty of five major health and safety breaches and fined £1,400.

Meanwhile, on 7 March, 1996, a worker died after falling from scaffolding at a Zoe site on Parnell Street, Dublin.

Masterson's death marked a turning point of sorts, resulting in the company donating €100,000 to the court poor box – and belatedly introducing much needed changes to its health and safety practices.

By that stage, however, Carroll was already well on his way to building the empire for which he has since become infamous.

Sunday Tribune

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