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Back to the Drawing Board For Spencer Dock – by Ciarán Cuffe, published in the Irish Independent. July 2000

It’s back to the drawing board. That was the message sent out by Bord Pleanála to the developers, as they granted permission for the National Conference Centre, but refused permission for the rest of the development. The Spencer Dock Consortium had sought planning permission for six million square feet, but only received permission for under half a million. In effect, they were given the thumbs-down for the vast bulk of the project.

Sixteen months ago Treasury Holdings, Harry Crosbie and CIE applied to Dublin Corporation for planning permission for their masterplan, designed by the award-winning Irish-born architect Kevin Roche. The developers felt that Roche, applauded for his Ford Foundation headquarters in Manhattan could deliver the goods in Dublin. However, Roche’s designs failed to secure widespread approval. Critics wondered whether the bland design was past its sell-buy date, and local residents voiced concern about high-rise blocks that would have been over three hundred feet high.

Dublin Corporation granted permission for four and a half million square feet of the proposal in August last year, but placed a raft of conditions on the proposed fifty acre development. These included restricting the building heights, and ensuring that the development was linked in to the surrounding neighbourhood. The City Council had recommended a spilt-decision, approving the National Conference Centre, but refusing the rest of the development. However, Sean Carey, the Assistant City Manager over-ruled them.  The Board’s decision yesterday validated the Council’s view. A similar difference of opinion had arisen with another high-rise proposal on George’s Quay, where the Manager again differed with the elected representatives, but was over-ruled by the Board. In both cases, Bord Pleanála stated that the planning applications were material contraventions of the City Development Plan. A difference of opinion has clearly arisen between senior management of Dublin Corporation on one side and Bord Pleanála and the city councillors on the other. Some councillors believe that city management is siding too much with developers, but no doubt, the city management feel that the councillors are caving in to parochial pressures.

A High Buildings Study has been commissioned by Dublin Corporation from the London based architectural and planning consultancy DEGW, and was due to have been completed by the start of the summer. The delay in its publication illustrates the issue’s complexity. The City Manager John Fitzgerald is understood to have viewed a first draft of the Report. Parts of the city around Heuston and the former Broadstone Station may figure in the Study. It is expected to grasp the nettle on high-rise, and pinpoint parts of the city are suited to tall buildings. Such locations would need to be close to good public transport links, but not overlook or overshadow existing residential areas. Dublin’s Docklands may well be able to absorb some tall buildings. However, apart from the Millennium tower on the Grand Canal Docks, proposals so far have failed to capture the public’s imagination.

The Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) may end up mediating between the developers and the local community. It was set up by government to develop the Docklands. It can prepare a Planning Scheme for the area, in effect setting the ground rules for development.  After a much-publicised squabble last year between themselves and the developers, the DDDA allowed the Appeal to Bord Pleanála to run its course. The Authority is now well placed to prepare an urban design framework. This can deliver a profit for the developers as well as tangible gains for the local community.

The Spencer Dock project has brought together a curious consortium comprising CIE, Treasury Holdings and Harry Crosbie.  The bulk of the land involved forms part of CIE’s North Wall freight depot. Some observers feel that CIE should stick to their main objective of running a property company, and allow the Docklands Authority to develop the site. After all, Bord Gáis recently sold their large site on the Grand Canal Docks to the DDDA. Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett of Treasury Holdings must now be worried that their plans are beginning to unravel. Minister Mary O’Rourke may come under pressure to allow the DDDA to acquire the land from CIE and develop the site.

The Spencer Dock site is crucial one for the City’s development. If handled correctly it could be a working model of urban sustainability. It could provide for the National Conference Centre, as well as a range of employment opportunities and housing types. With a good urban design framework in place, the site could provide for three million square feet of mixed uses. It could be a bustling city quarter that rivals the waterfronts of Helsinki or Barcelona. It is important that we look towards models of urban generation that have been proven to work elsewhere. The American downtowns that turn their back on the street, and rely on car commuting are not an appropriate model. Instead we must look at successful urban neighbourhoods elsewhere in Europe that have delivered the goods in affordable housing, in local jobs, and in creating vibrant bustling streets and squares. High density does not necessarily mean high-rise, and before we propose buildings twenty floors high we should see what can be achieved with good design, and a strong input from the local community.

Ciarán Cuffe lectures in urban planning in the Dublin Institute of Technology. He is also a city councillor for the Green Party, and took a planning appeal against the development.

ENDS