Wednesday 22 May 2019

Is it time for Dublin to grow up? Calls for capital to build upwards, rather than outwards

With the city's population set to expand by 400,000, there are growing calls for the capital to build upwards rather than outwards. Can high-rise help to tackle the chronic housing shortage, or would they destroy the character of the city?

Moving up: Dublin Chamber of Commerce’s Graeme McQueen on Dublin’s Barrow Street, in the Grand Canal development area, where workers from Google and Facebook pay up to €3,000 per month to live in towers like the 16-floor Alto Vetro building. Photo: Frank McGrath
Moving up: Dublin Chamber of Commerce’s Graeme McQueen on Dublin’s Barrow Street, in the Grand Canal development area, where workers from Google and Facebook pay up to €3,000 per month to live in towers like the 16-floor Alto Vetro building. Photo: Frank McGrath

Dublin takes pride in its classic low-rise Georgian and Victorian streetscape. Planning restrictions make it difficult for developers to build tall apartment blocks across most of the city.

But now, in the middle of a housing crisis, there is a growing clamour for the city to reach for the sky - and allow taller blocks of flats to accommodate the growing population.

Owen Keegan, the chief executive of Dublin City Council, this week urged councillors to allow blocks of flats across much of the city centre to be as high as office buildings.

He has argued that allowing the same heights for apartments as offices would help "address current severe shortages of housing supply".

The population of the greater Dublin area is expected to grow by a further 400,000 by 2031, according to figures from the Central Statistics Office. The property company Savills has estimated that 13,000 new homes will be needed every year in the near future. Planners will have to decide whether Dublin follows its traditional growth pattern and grows out in an urban sprawl - hoovering up vast tracts of countryside and sending hundreds of thousands of commuters to jam-packed commuter towns.

Or perhaps it time for Dublin to grow upwards and become a mini-Manhattan on the Liffey, with a proliferation of tall apartment blocks?

Could it even have buildings as high as the tallest residential building in the world - 423 Park Avenue in New York, which rises 425 metres above the ground.

Or is there another way of housing a fast-expanding population through clever design without filling the streets with imposing towers that destroy the capital's character?

Heuston South Quarter
Heuston South Quarter

High-rise living has enjoyed mixed fortunes in the capital. Just nine months ago, demolition work began on the last of the Ballymun tower blocks - the last one to be felled was named after the 1916 signatory Joseph Plunkett.

A project that started out as a utopian ideal of high-rise local authority living ended up as a stigmatised ghetto blighted by high unemployment and with poor amenities.

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And yet, in another altogether different ghetto in the city, residents have embraced high-rise living with a vengeance.

Around Grand Canal Dock, workers from hi-tech companies such as Google and Facebook pay up to €3,000 per month to live in towers like the 16-floor Alto Vetro building picture on this week's cover. The slogan on the tower when it was developed by Johnny Ronan seven years ago was: "Live the high life."

High-rise living suits the young, single, transient tech workers who occupy the nearby offices by day.

Planning regulations restricting height are less onerous at Grand Canal Dock, and the highest apartment block, Millennium Tower - 17 storeys - reaches to 63 metres.

Across most of the inner city, apartments can currently be 19 metres in height or six storeys, and offices are allowed to be 28 metres or seven storeys.

This week, city councillors shot down Keegan's proposal in the draft Dublin Development Plan to push up heights of apartments to 28m across much of the city centre. However, they agreed to increase the heights by 5 metres to 24 metres.

Brian Moran, managing director of the Irish arm of multi-national property developers Hines, fervently believes that it is time for Dublin to grow upwards rather than outwards.

He has suggested that we should copy the example of high-rise cities such as Vancouver.

Moran, who is developing a new town at Cherrywood in South County Dublin, tells Review: "It makes no sense to keep rolling tarmac into green fields and building new schools, fire stations, and other services out on the edge of the city, when we have land and infrastructure close to the city centre that is unused."

The developer believes the Docklands, the area near Guinness brewery and the area around Broadstone Station on the Northside, are all ideal for high-rise buildings.

"There are huge swathes of post-industrial land that are unused," says Moran.

He adds that 25-storey tower blocks do not have to be built straight up from the street.

"You can have a 'shoulder height' at street level," he explains. "If you take a typical street that we walk down, there is a certain height that we are comfortable with.

"You can continue to build at that height, and then you can build higher behind it. In that way the buildings are not so imposing."

Moves to turn Dublin into a high-rise metropolis have been met with stiff opposition from city councillors and local residents, who fear that their homes may be dwarfed.

The original proposal for 28-metre heights across the inner city was double the height of a typical Georgian building.

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"Tall apartment blocks can work well in certain areas such as close to Heuston station," says Ciaran Cuffe, a Green party councillor and lecturer in planning at DIT.

"However, they can overlook and overshadow the places around them, and can dramatically change the character of a neighbourhood.

"I suggested that we should bring down the height limit to 24 metres as a compromise."

While there is bound to be opposition to higher towers across the city centre, moves to lift the height restrictions are supported by many business interests in the city.

The Dublin Chamber of Commerce warned city councillors they risked stifling economic growth and exacerbating the housing crisis if they blocked moves to allow higher buildings.

"We need to build upwards to accommodate the growth that is coming Dublin's way," says Dublin Chamber's Graeme McQueen.

"We are a very low-rise, low-density city as it is. One of the best ways to increase density in the city is to build upwards."

McQueen argues that areas like O'Connell Street are crying out for redevelopment and investment.

"If you are going to limit O'Connell to 14 metres in height, as some have suggested, developers are not going to touch it and areas like that will remain in the doldrums.

"If we don't make the best use of the sites available to us, it is going to be an opportunity lost.

"This isn't about putting skyscrapers in among Georgian buildings and ruining the character that we have in Dublin."

High-rise living has plenty of advocates, but will we really solve Dublin's housing problems by building upwards, particularly after the unhappy experience of the Ballymun flats?

Dr Lorcan Sirr, lecturer in housing studies, says tall buildings are not necessarily the best way of achieving the highest population density in a city.

"The lowest common denominator approach is to add more floors. But you can have incredibly densely populated parts of Dublin without going up very high.

"You can squeeze more units into smaller spaces by using better design," says Dr Sirr.

"We waste an awful lot of space in buildings.

"Sometimes it is down to regulations, such as the need for one car park space for every unit - it isn't always necessary."

Rather than embracing towering apartment blocks, Dr Sirr favours the type of buildings found in many Spanish cities.

"A lot of Spanish cities have six-storey buildings. You would have a ground floor of shops - butchers, hairdressers, bars and banks - and then five floors of apartments of 85sqm of two or three-bed accommodation. Those kind of buildings house an awful lot of people."

Councillors voted this week to allow apartments eight storeys high in 'low-rise' areas of the capital.

The latest plan will also allow for much higher tower blocks of up to 50 metres in nine designated areas.

In four areas - the Docklands, George's Quay, Connolly and Heuston Stations - mini-skyscrapers of more than 50 metres will be permitted.

There will be more high apartment towers as well as office blocks in the near future. American property giants Kennedy Wilson are developing the Capital Dock scheme, which will include the city's tallest apartment block, which will rise 79 metres above the River Liffey at Sir John Rogerson's Quay. It will dwarf Liberty Hall, which is 20 metres lower.

Developers and other business interests look with envy at cities like London, where the mayor is allowed to give the go-ahead to tall buildings. Vast structures such as the Shard and the Gherkin have sprung up along the Thames, as well as 50-storey apartment schemes.

"We are not looking to completely change the landscape of the city, but there should be flexibility so we can build bigger buildings where appropriate," says McQueen.

"London has a skyline, which has evolved over generations. Architects have been able to put their stamp on the city, and the end product has been fantastic."

Irish developers may envy London, but the emergence of vast apartment blocks, often owned by foreign investors, has not met with universal approval in the English capital.

The chairman of Britain's National Trust, Simon Jenkins, warned in The Guardian newspaper that with the construction of rows of giant blocks, "the line of the Thames will be marked by a series of jagged broken teeth".

Jenkins dismisses the idea that cities have to go high to build population density as "rubbish" and says the densest parts of London are the crowded, low-rise Victorian terraces of Islington, Camden and Kensington.

He argues that the external landscaping and internal servicing make high-rise towers costly and inefficient.

Michael Cleary, of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, believes the Georgian core of Dublin should be preserved - but says it also makes sense to make better use of city-centre sites by building higher in certain areas such as close to transport hubs.

"Height offers a number of positives. It allows more open space and in a city-centre location, it gives residents more daylight.

"The downside of height is that the taller you go, the more uneconomic it can become to build.

"If you go above 30m, you are running into issues over fire tender access and the reach of fire ladders," says Cleary.

"You need sprinkler systems and secondary escape stairs.

"You also need more lifts, because there are more people living in the building."

Many planners and architects believe that it is not so much the height of buildings that we should be concerned about as the type of apartments we are building.

Dublin architect Mel Reynolds says that one of the problems is that developers find it more profitable to build small, one-bed apartments, rather than larger units that can house a higher density of population.

"The problem is, we're still stuck in the idea of making apartments as small as possible, as many as possible and as high as possible."

Chartered surveyor Cleary believes there should more incentives to build larger two-bedroom apartments that be can be lived in from the cradle to the grave. The standard continental two-bedroomed flat is often suitable for single people, couples with children, and retired people who still want a reasonable amount of space for their accumulated possessions.

Conservationists may baulk at the idea of a high-rise city, but developers such as Brian Moran believe that up is now the only way to go.

"There shouldn't be a blanket ban that slices the top off the city.

''It shows a lack of confidence."

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