RTÉ's Redevelopment Is Missing a Trick

Philip Comerford and Thomas Legge

Philip Comerford is a Dublin-based architect with an interest in urban research. Thomas Legge works on EU climate and energy policy. He writes here in a personal capacity.


RTÉ’s plans to flog off some of its Montrose campus are misguided.

The national broadcaster should not be allowed to sell such an important site. Instead, this land should be used as the keystone of a radical new approach to sustainable, family-friendly urban development that shows how Ireland can address congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

RTÉ hopes to plug its €20m annual deficit by selling 3 hectares of prime residential land in salubrious Dublin 4 to the highest bidder. The proposed sale is a bad way to address the underlying problem that RTÉ has a defective financing model.

It is also a missed opportunity to address two other problems: Dublin’s chronic shortage of affordable housing, and Ireland’s rising transport emissions, a legacy of decades of uncoordinated land-use and transport policies that have led to car-centric urban sprawl across the country.

We’ll come back to the question of how RTÉ could plug its financing hole. For now, the point we want to make is that it should not be up to just RTÉ, a publicly owned body, to decide what happens to this magnificent expanse of land in one of the most expensive parts of the country.

The planned houses and apartments are fancy enough, but we should be much more imaginative about how we could use this land to tackle wider social and economic problems.

We propose instead that the RTÉ campus should be part of a fundamental redesign of the N11 dual carriageway that would see it transformed from the sad, congested pseudo-motorway it is today into an urban boulevard supporting vibrant neighbourhoods built around the kind of public transport that will really entice people out of their cars. (We have submitted this idea to the ongoing consultation on the National Planning Framework.)

The Dublin metropolitan area is projected to grow by 400,000 people by 2030. It is still within our power to choose whether that growth be met by more far-flung suburbs in counties Meath and Kildare, or by creating a model of urban planning that works for everyone, not least by removing from most citizens the obligation to own a private car.

The success of the Luas shows that high-quality public transport can get people out of their cars. The problem is that Dublin’s dispersal means that it’s too expensive to build more Luas lines in many parts of the city, and the lines that do get built are too far away from most people’s houses.

The experience of the Red and (particularly) the Green Luas lines shows that when tramlines are built, density tends to increase as developers build apartment blocks along the new routes.

But there is a chicken-and-egg problem; developers will not build at sufficient density without the public transport infrastructure, and the state and private developers are reluctant to build the infrastructure without the necessary density in place.

Image by Philip Comerford

Our proposed approach is to create high-quality mobility corridors that would reorganise the process so that density is increased in tandem with the provision of public transport while providing other social goods such as affordable housing.

Land with higher density is worth more than low-density development land, and if the model is set up correctly the state would capture this increased value and use it to pay for these public goods.

It could be a model of development where the new neighbourhoods would be what the city really needs — affordable homes, family-sized apartments, schools, parks, child-friendly streets — rather than what a developer thinks will best line his or her pockets.

One way to do this would be to use the land already in public hands strategically to increase housing density along these transport corridors so that high-quality public transport options like Luas or Bus Rapid Transit become feasible. Sites along the N11 including RTÉ’s Montrose campus, the Donnybrook bus garage, and the edge of the UCD campus would be ideal for this purpose.

But there are also large amounts of potential development land hiding in plain sight. The N11 is unnecessarily wide in many places. We propose narrowing the road by getting rid of turning lanes and wasteful grassy medians and even by burying the road in some places (such as at the underpass between UCD and the Montrose hotel).

The road would then be reorganised to prioritise public transport, bicycle lanes and footpaths, while retaining the two lanes of motor traffic in either direction, all on a smaller footprint than today.

Here is how the scheme could work. The state and local authorities would create a masterplan in which the N11 would be converted from its current function, an expressway for cars, into an urban boulevard providing high-quality mobility through public transport, cycling, walking, and private motor transport.

The boulevard would be a clearly defined streetscape of shops and businesses on the ground floor and apartments above, or residential neighbourhoods characterised by terraced townhouses or apartments, with wide footpaths to enable footfall.

The land could be designated for innovative new housing delivery methods like cooperatives, housing trusts, affordable student accommodation, self-build schemes (called baugruppen in German), and rental apartments under long-term (20-50 year) leases.

Some of the construction could be done by a non-profit entity such as described by the Nevin Economic Research Institute. The judicious development of high-end residences would deliver profits to pay for the whole scheme.

The approach is scalable: it could be applied wherever there is state-owned land and wherever there are unnecessarily wide roads leading to Ireland’s cities.

Of course, such a plan would be inconvenient to RTÉ’s plans to address its €20m annual deficit. But this offers an opportunity to discuss the fundamental question of the role of public broadcasting in Ireland.

If there is to be public broadcasting, and we would argue that it is essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy, it should be able to do its job through unconditional public financing and without relying on private advertising (which implies an inherent conflict of interest).

It certainly shouldn’t require the one-off sale of valuable land that could be used for much more imaginative purposes.

Reader responses

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dave
at 5 April 2017 at 13:56

I can’t see how the idea of creating living space right beside busy carriageways is progress, or any different from the classic Irish mentality of just houses stuck on a busy through road being called “towns”. Far better to come up with solutions that once and for all make a break between cars and living space, like so many European towns have done for generations. The obsession with the car here is into Ballardian levels at this stage.

I wonder how much the location of RTE in D4 in the first place accounts for its high cost margins? Especially it being cut off from Luas and Dart, and relying on its massive daily taxi budget to ferry guests and staff back and forth every day. High time they moved to pastures new perhaps, on a Luas or Dart line, taking a nice chunk of Nama land on the northside or west perhaps.
It would be interesting if nothing else to see how the station would be transformed from its inherent D4 cosyness (narcolepsy) overnight. Not to mention its massive over reliance down the years on UCD to provide free wafflers on tap.

Antoin O Lachtnain
at 5 April 2017 at 23:39

You really have to build your economic case here. You have some good ideas and an economic analysis will show whether they will stack up.

The problem you will run into is public transport. It is basically impossible to run a LUAS as you describe. Firstly, it is very hard to find a suitable cross city route (the Bxd route will be crammed to capacity with the areas it serves). Secondly it is very difficult to run buses and LUAS together in your configuration, since you have not provided for a bus lane. This really needs an underground train as the centrepiece to make high density work.

But you could have a bus solution and use the median to provide an extra bus lane. As you know there was a previous proposal for an east west BRT in this area. It didn’t really make any sense though. It was just a ‘reheated 52’. The route didn’t have any strong year-round daytime/weekend destination and didn’t work as a result. But a major centre at Montrose would change that.

Thomas LEGGE
at 7 April 2017 at 08:08

Hi Antoin: we think that the economic assumptions are fairly conservative but a deeper study should reveal the size of the opportunity. The LUAS (or BRT) needs to be part of a larger systematic review of the transport network–a sufficiently frequent and high-capacity LUAS line running along this route could replace all the bus routes that currently use it, with passengers transferring from other routes. Underground systems could work and might eventually be necessary but we could do so much more with surface transport options. See David O’Connor’s recent pieces on the opportunities for realising the network effect in Dublin transport; also Zurich’s excellent transport system works without a metro.

Cian Ginty
at 13 April 2017 at 18:02

Nice idea but it’s really sad to see the density myth crop up again — the continuous urban area of Dublin has a higher population density than the continuous urban area of Amsterdam. Amsterdam can manage to have cycle paths, trams and underground metro routes, there’s no reason relating to density why Dublin can’t have the same.

Most of the Luas red line is reasonable areas of fairly low density, yet the network covers its operational costs. But where there is low density along potential routes there’s nearly always some scope to have new or extra in-fill density.

As for transport along the N11 — central running Luas would be a far better idea for giving it priority and you you could look at one of the Dutch approaches where they have motoring-only roundabouts with walking/cycling and public transport under the cars. This is safer for walking and cycling and gives all sustainable transport priority.

It could be a like Metro North was planned, a metro with very long trams running on the ground but under the junctions for cars along the main N11 corridor and then going underground before the city. But with such there would be few sustainable surface routes off the N11.

As Anton says above, a big question is what you do with buses and coaches… would passengers all just be dropped into the tram? I’ve only seen mixing buses and trams in low-speed, on-street areas.

Would the housing right up against the road be attractive without reducing the traffic more?

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