People Power in Skyscraper Decision at George’s Quay

People Power in Skyscraper Decision at George’s Quay – by Ciarán Cuffe, published in the Irish Independent 1 October 1999

A victory for people power was how local residents described An Bord Pleanála’s decision to turn down the skyscraper scheme for Georges Quay. The scheme proposed a mixture of offices and apartments in a high rise scheme bounded by Townsend Street, Moss Street and Georges Quay close to Dublin’s city centre.

Warning bells had sounded when Dublin Corporation’s Planning Officer recommended in an internal report that the scheme be refused. He believed that the scheme would obtrude on the skyline, have a detrimental effect on the setting of the Custom House, and overshadow the nearby community. His advice was over-ruled by Sean Carey, the Assistant Dublin City Manager. Carey granted permission for the development with twelve conditions relating to car parking, archaeology and other issues. In his decision he also reduced the height of the scheme from 100 metres to 80 metres.

Within a month of the decision, An Bord Pleanalá was faced with ten separate planning appeals ranging from nearby tenants associations to the Irish Georgian Society. The Board instructed the developer Borg Developments to prepare an Environmental Impact Study for the scheme. The Developers, sensing that feelings were running high, reduced the scheme to 71 metres. Liberty Hall by comparison is 60 metres high, so the revised scheme would have been about thirty feet taller than Dublin’s tallest building.

The Bord in their decision stated that the scheme would have materially contravened the current Dublin City Development Plan, and did not take account of the Dublin Docklands Area Master Plan. Their decision reflected the concerns of the Dublin Planning Officer in referring to the detrimental affect of the scheme on the Custom House, Trinity College and the Liffey Quays. Significantly, it also stated that the height and bulk of the proposed development would have injured the amenities of residential property in the vicinity. Residents, many of whom who had sat through four days of the Oral Hearing in the Royal Dublin Hotel last August were delighted with the news. It had seemed like a David and Goliath scene to explain the concerns of the community to a line-up of engineers, architects and consultants working for Borg Developments.

The decision must send shock waves through the Developers who have high rise plans for the rest of the Docklands area. The Spencer Dock Development Consortium who are appealing their plans for the National Conference Centre must be reading the decision carefully to ascertain what the future may hold for their own proposal. Dublin Corporation has consultants working on an Urban Height Study for the City, which will determine where tall buildings may be placed. However the Board recently turned down schemes in Ringsend and the South Lotts area in Dublin’s south-east inner city. This may have established precedents that could be difficult to overturn.

The developers may decide to proceed with an earlier scheme dating back to 1991 which they themselves described as the ‘Portals of darkness’. This scheme is for an office development with tinted dark windows on office towers overlooking the Quays. This scheme may not be the most commercially viable for the site, and a more modern scheme may now be considered more appropriate. Dublin Corporation has also to consider a proposal at its next City Council meeting to withdraw this existing planning permission for the site.

Perhaps Dublin should look at cities such as Paris, Washington and Helsinki, where most high rise schemes have been kept clear of the historic city centre, and don’t interfere with the amenities of existing residents. There may well be some areas close to the centre that can sustain higher buildings, but these could chosen so as not to overshadow communities. They should also be placed close to good public transport connections, so that people are not completely dependent on using cars.

The choice for Dublin is not between high rise blocks or suburban sprawl. Many cities have been able to cope with rapid economic growth by building well designed mixed-use buildings that are integrated with the surrounding community. This middle ground should now be considered for Dublin. A Planning Scheme was published recently for the Grand Canal Docks area by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. It proposes a mixture of buildings from four to seven stories high, with some landmark buildings that would be significantly taller than their surroundings. It also proposes providing a mixture of workspaces and housing types, with 20% social/affordable housing, crèche facilities and an outdoor performance facing onto the dock basin. If handled correctly, it could provide a model for development that accommodates the needs of the surrounding community, as well as the developers’ desire to make a profit.