In the Docklands, a Debate over the Balance of Development

There are blue cranes against blue skies along Hanover Quay.

At Grand Canal Basin, workers pass in and out of buildings, past hoardings announcing the next round of luxury apartments.

In 2013 and 2014, Dublin City Council drew up a plan for this parcel of the Docklands – a Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) that spreads out along both sides of the Liffey, over the North Lotts and Grand Canal Dock.

It said there should be a balance of development between office space and residential, split evenly over the area.

But some councillors are starting to express concerns that office space is dominating, and that the residential units under construction only cater to those working in high-paying jobs in the area.

“I think the planning department within the city council needs to take a more critical look at the planning applications coming in and how they comply with the Docklands SDZ,” said Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam.

Also, National College of Ireland (NCI) President Gina Quin recently pointed to the lack of social infrastructure that has been built in the neighbourhood.

Despite a strong commitment in plans, “the delivery to date has been 0.001 percent of the total floor space built, or committed to be built in the area”, she told councillors at a recent meeting of their Central Area Committee.

What’s Going Up?

The council has set out a prescriptions for how the 22 blocks in the area should be split between office space and homes.

In its master plan, some blocks were planned at 70 percent residential and 30 percent office space, while in others, the quotas were set in reverse. In the SDZ as a whole, it’s  supposed to balance out at 50 percent residential and 50 percent office space.

Chief Executive Owen Keegan has said that there are “no concerns” within the council executive at the moment about the delivery of housing there.

Of the 22 blocks in the scheme, all but three of the 14 major blocks have planning permission or a pending application, he said, in response to a query from Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe at the end of last year.

Construction has started in six of those blocks, he said. “For all of these the residential portion has proceeded to construction alongside the commercial,” Keegan said.

Projects under construction add up to 800 apartments and a large student accommodation block of more than 900 beds.

Two recently approved applications in the North Lotts account for another 360 homes in Block 3 and 420 homes in Block 9.

This “will result in a total of just over 1,800 new dwellings granted in the SDZ so far”, according to Keegan’s response.

(For each of the blocks in the SDZ, which are coloured purple in the map below, click to see the planned balance of residential and commercial development.)

Keeping an Eye

“I was surprised by the numbers given,” said Cuffe. “I asked [council management] was there enough housing and they said there was.”

But Cuffe is unsure. “I’m not sceptical, more cautious,” he says. “I don’t feel like many apartments are coming on stream.”

Like others, he said he is keeping an eye on the balance of development between commercial space and housing in the area. City planners need to take that into consideration, said Cuffe.

They also need to question the kinds of homes or residential units that are being built, and who they are for, said McAdam of Fine Gael.

Too much student accommodation doesn’t lead to a sustainable local community, he said. Past mistakes might be repeated.

“The biggest problem we had with the initial development on the Northside of the Docklands was that when it hit 5pm on a Friday evening the place cleared out,” he says.

Photo by Cónal Thomas

Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan says she is concerned that the residential units being built in the Docklands will only be affordable for those working in the area.

The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Docklands in 2017 was €2,310 a month for those under the rent-increase cap – up 6 percent from the previous year.

It was €2,406 a month for those not governed by the rent cap – an increase of 10.5 percent from last year, according to a report from the estate agents Owen Reilly.

The price for an average two-bedroom apartment was up 15.1 percent from €421,530 to €485,129. Sixty-six percent of buyers were investors, and 34 percent were occupiers.

Reilly says that the density of housing in the Docklands needs to be increased. The plan currently allows for 2,600 new homes and 305,000sqm of commercial floorspace.

“I think you could argue that the old plan is not fit for purpose anymore in light of Brexit and in light of the housing crisis,” he said.

Higher density may allow higher-income workers to live close to their officers within the Docklands. But for those on lower incomes it won’t solve the issues around affordability.

Ryan says that the council cannot control what will be charged for the new residential units that will be built by private developers in the Docklands.

“So there’s clearly a mismatch there. If you give a commitment to affordability you have to have mechanisms to actually enforce that,” she said.

At the recent council meeting, independent Councillor Christy Burke said he had raised concerns about social inclusion, and the potential cost to the council of future social housing. Would it be prohibitively expensive?

His fear is that, despite the fact that land has been sold for relatively cheap by NAMA to private developers, those developers will charge large amounts to the council looking to buy portions of developments for social housing, under the legislation known as Part V.

Both Sides of the Water

On Friday morning, there was blue hoarding wrapped around a large site on Mayor Street Upper. Nearby, a handful of commuters board a Luas towards the city centre.

Wind whipped at the corner of Castleforbes Road. Further along, at the Point Village, construction has started in Block 5 of the SDZ.

It’s here that O’Flynn Capital Partners is developing a large student-housing complex not far from the 3 Arena, where, if all goes to plan, there will be 970 beds – as well 866sqm of commercial retail and 462sqm for enterprise and community use.

Block 5 has been assigned a 30:70 ratio between residential and commercial, in the area plan.

South-east of there, along North Wall Quay, construction workers are excavating a large plot of land behind the Central Bank of Ireland.

This land in Block 8, which has also been assigned a 30:70 ratio between residential and commercial, forms part of the Dublin Landings scheme.

According to the Ballymore Group – which is developing the site with Oxley Holdings – it has plans for 700,000sqft of office space and 273 apartments there.

Across the Liffey, a site in Block 11 is also being dug up at the moment. Block 11 is supposed to be split half and half between residential and commercial.

The plan here is for five or six storeys of mixed-use commercial, residential and retail, with a total of 56 apartments over 6,056sqm, and 22,854sqm of commercial and retail space.

Down the road, the development branded Six Hanover Quay is well under construction.  Located in Block 14 – with a ratio aim of 50:50 – the site plans show 122 one-bedroom, two -bedroom and three-bedroom, apartments.

Around the corner in Block 15 – where the ratio aim is tilted towards commercial, 30:70 – construction workers are busy on the Capital Dock development.

The plans show seven blocks ranging in height from three to 19 storeys, with 35,690sqm of office space inside and 17,561sqm of residential, walled off into 204 apartments.

Finally, across Grand Canal Dock, Waterways House is under construction in Block 17 – where the target ratio 30:70, residential to commercial. That will be a seven-storey office block.

Late last year, the council granted planning permission for another five sites within the SDZ. That includes 360 homes in Block 3, and 420 homes in Block 9.

It also includes a further 35,708sqm of commercial development in Block 9.  And a 241-room aparthotel, along with 18,670sqm of office and cultural space in Block 10.

Community Spaces

The plan also sets out an objective “to facilitate collaboration in the pursuit of social sustainability”. At the heart of that, is the need for community facilities.

Any community facilities built within the Dockalnds SDZ have to be for long-term residents, not transient ones, says McAdam of Fine Gael.

Ryan of the Workers’ Party says that she has concerns that any community facilities built within the zone will be determined by those living in the area at the moment, those who can afford the higher rents, such as the higher-paid tech workers.

“So there might be a demand within the area for a gym rather than a community hall,” says Ryan.

At the recent meeting of the council’s Central Area Committee, NCI President Gina Quin said that her organisation wants to build a second campus building in the North Lotts, as it needs space to grow, she said.

“We need space to provide more community facilities, to complement and develop the Early Learning Initiative and our third-level education initiatives,” Quin said.

But while they have identified a site in the North Lotts area, they’re having difficulty accessing it through the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA). The agency is insisting on bringing it to the open market, she said.

(A NAMA spokesperson said they couldn’t comment without more detail of the exact site in question.)

There has for a long time been a tension between housing and commercial developments in the Docklands, says Seanie Lambe, a community activist with the Inner City Organisations Network (ICON).

Lambe says that when the area was overseen by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, there was more attention to social and people-focused issues, rather than planning and buildings.

The authority did a good audit of the area to see what it needed in terms of education supports, but that’s stalled with the council, he said.

“There isn’t enough focus on the social side of things,” he said. The main people dealing with the Docklands at the council are planners, not sociologists. “We take the view that people make cities, not buildings.”

A focus on the built environment, rather than the people who live there, is typical of gentrification, he says. “You just price them out, and scatter them around.”

There have been a few developments that have pushed that along, he said.

The past quota that 20 percent of developments be social housing has been shaved down to 10 percent. House prices and rents are unaffordable to most and rising.

Promised employment hasn’t materialised, he said. “While there would be some of that, it hasn’t really come through.”

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