Monday 27 September 2010

City centre business already counting cost of major construction on St Stephen's Green

Some Dublin businesses say their livelihoods will be threatened by the Metro project even if it benefits the city in the long run, writes OLIVIA KELLY

NEXT MONTH An Bord Pleanála will issue its decision on the railway order sought two years ago by the Railway Procurement Agency (RPA) for the construction of Metro North.

The 18km line would run from St Stephen’s Green to Belinstown north of Swords, with 17 stops including Dublin airport, Ballymun, Dublin City University and the Mater hospital. If the railway order is granted as expected, initial work will begin on the line next April, the RPA said.

These “enabling works”, which largely involve diverting utilities, will take approximately a year, with full construction work starting in 2012 and, the agency said, finishing in 2016.

Around the time the decision is due, hearings will begin on the RPA’s application for the Luas BXD, the cross-city line designed to link up the original Luas Red and Green lines and the Dart Underground line, which falls under the remit of Iarnród Éireann.

The Luas line is no longer in the Government current capital programme; the Metro and Dart Underground remain. Regardless of when construction on these lines goes ahead, all routes ultimately converge on the north west quarter of St Stephen’s Green, making it for several years the biggest construction site in the State.

One of the most prominent businesses on this part of the Green is the Fitzwilliam Hotel. Its brochure promotes the “tranquillity and calm” of its location, a statement that may have to be amended when construction begins.

Hotel owner Michael Holland has already moved to minimise the risks of a prolonged construction period outside his front door. Through a legal agreement reached with the RPA he has secured the relocation of escalators to the station, the continuance of vehicular access to the front door, and guarantees on the hours of construction, as well as dust and pollution mitigation measures.

Securing these guarantees came at a price, which he said few other businesses could afford.

“A business like ourselves, a large strong business can manage to put together teams of experts. €400,000 is the cost of the submission we made to the planning process – very few businesses could afford that. The system is grossly unfair.”

Despite these measures the hotel will have to install additional glazing “at considerable expense” in order to ensure the comfort of guests. The hotel learned an expensive lesson during the construction of the Luas Green line, when a senior executive from an international firm was woken at 3am by drilling. As a result the hotel lost a corporate account worth €300,000 a year.

“Disruption directly on our hotel will be reduced. Needless to say there will still be a serious impact, but our concern is for the city generally. What the RPA is promoting is a Celtic Tiger era project. We couldn’t be in a more different place today. It is absolutely the wrong time to inflict such a major infrastructure project on the city.”

Proponents of the scheme say this is short-sighted thinking. The construction phase will undoubtedly be tough, but the compensation will be a top-class rail infrastructure which will be of huge benefit to the city. Mr Holland doesn’t agree.

“The Metro is an incredibly expensive commuter system we don’t need. It might be different if it was a dedicated airport metro, like the Heathrow Express, but it’s not. There are too many stops on it, business people won’t use it, and I’d wonder if tourists would either when there are dedicated airport buses that go non-stop to the city centre.”

If the Government insists on pursuing the Metro, and the Dart and Luas projects, they should at the least postpone construction until the economy picks up, Mr Holland said, to give small businesses a better chance of coping with the upheaval, and so finance is there to do all three concurrently.

“To contemplate going ahead with three different projects over three different time frames will destroy Dublin city. Small businesses will shut down. Nobody wants to come into a city that’s half shut. That is what will happen if they attempt this before there is full economic recovery.”

Diagonally across the proposed construction site from the hotel, restaurateur Susannah Jackson of Il Posto said experience of other construction on the Green has left her with very specific concerns about the Metro work.

“A building nearby was getting some refurbishment done and it involved pile drivers. There were rats running up and down the road. They didn’t get into the restaurant, but it was all we could do to keep them out.”

The restaurant is tied into a lease for the next 10 years, and for most of this time, Ms Jackson estimates, the area will be a construction site.

“I don’t think any of us can continue through this. We’ve fought very hard to stay open during the recession and the ash cloud, even if we made it through the construction, what sort of place is it going to be afterwards?”

Drew Flood, general manager of the Cliff Town House, formerly Bentleys, a few doors down, has very clear views on what sort of place the Green will become.

“It’s going to be like Baghdad. It would be like taking the Champs Elysees, taking Mayfair and turning it into Baghdad. It will be the death knell of Stephen’s Green and the death knell of Grafton Street.”

Unlike the Fitzwilliam Hotel, Mr Flood says, he does not have the resources to mount a legal challenge to the specific aspects of the project that affect his business. “We’re at the mercy of the RPA. We don’t have the money to hire lawyers – we just have to wait and see what happens to us, and whatever happens, it seems we just have to take it.” The construction plans for the Metro alone would make it impossible for the business to operate, he said.

A large sum of money was put into the refurbishment of the building, to develop a high-end restaurant and boutique hotel which caters to a loyal clientele, Mr Flood said. That business is now under serious threat.

“The only hospitality business required on St Stephen’s Green for a 10-year period will be making bacon rolls.”

Irish Times

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