Dublin City Council has approved a planning application that allows for a Lidl and six-storey student accommodation in the middle of Ballymun. It is a decision that the council and Ballymun residents will rue for many years to come.
The needs of Ballymun will not be served by adding homes for more people on lower incomes. Whilst students do tend to spend all their income, there is nowhere in Ballymun to soak it up that will be beneficial to the existing community, or business.
Is a single Lidl located as an island in the central core of the main street likely to add confidence to investors to locate to Ballymun? Or will it be seen as an act of desperation?
The announcement of the regeneration of Ballymun was generally met with positivity in 1997. There was some distrust of the council, and its capacity to deliver, and concern about the role of the community in the redevelopment. But, overall, this was to be a physical, social, and economic regeneration.
The cost of refurbishing the existing flats and spines would have been excessive, which allowed for this very brave decision to be taken by the Rainbow Coalition. The decision was respected by the incoming Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats government, and was a testament to the need for fundamental change in this area.
The regeneration process was imaginative, daring, and audacious at times. It faced hold-ups due to spurious legal challenges and the poor design of the physical infrastructure from the 1960s. There was some opposition from the community, and a lot of scepticism.
The establishment of the Ballymun Regeneration Limited (BRL) company, which was wholly owned by Dublin City Council, and its staffing by a team of skilled professionals and a dedicated team of workers, won over the majority of the Ballymun community.
Plans for an industrial unit and perhaps a third-level college were examined by BRL for the area around the M50 motorway where IKEA now stands. There was a massive programme of public consultation, along with community training and briefings. Imaginative designs were turned into new estates, and the towers came down.
The key to the new Ballymun was that it would have a dynamic new centre that would look like a normal street with shops, offices, and accommodation all along the main street right up to the crossroads with Santry Avenue.
There was to be a cinema, a bowling ally, and other recreational and community activity. The idea was that Ballymun was to have an influx of private-market housing. Ballymun was to be a destination.
As we all know, this plan did not pan out this way. There was a failure to get significant investors into the wider Ballymun area and bring economic activity.
This may not have been a problem with BRL, but perhaps the lack of imagination and creativity of the private sector in addressing regeneration of brownfield development and seeing new possibilities. Yet the development of Santry Demesne proceeded at a pace and became a successful new area.
Legal difficulties with the tenants in the old shopping centre in Ballymun held up progress on the core of the regeneration. Relations with the existing owners of the centre were fraught with difficulties.
Two very significant developments were proposed by the owners, Treasury Holdings, and both got council approval. But with the economic collapse, work stopped.
As indeed did the final stages of the regeneration process, leaving Ballymun just 80 percent finished. A bit like it was in the 1970s.
One private block of apartments was constructed, but they were quickly let to HSE clients, to the dismay and anger of the BRL team. Their vision for a more mixed-income Ballymun was hampered by the failure to attract more private-owner-occupied accommodation to the area.
The National College of Ireland went to the Docklands instead of Ballymun, and the industrial area did not happen. IKEA has been a stunning success, but is isolated in one corner of the Fingal area. The centre of Ballymun has, however, been nothing short of a unmitigated disaster.
The old health centre, which was a disgrace as a place to work or to go for services, still stands, as does the long-vacated Garda station, disused pub, and a closed bank. A shopping centre with two small clients remains open.
Across the road is the stunning Ballymun Civic Centre, which houses HSE offices, Dublin City Council offices, a Department of Social Protection office, a Garda station and the Eastern & Midland Regional Assembly. Also, the Axis theatre is working away effectively.
But Ballymun is not a destination. It’s a place where people have to leave to do their shopping and find their entertainment.
A recent post on Facebook by a local person said, “Forgive me if I am wrong, but does anybody feel like Ballymun has gone backwards since the removal of the flats? Like I mean the community has been dented awfully, there is no where for people to gather or talk to one another without saying do you wan to go to the Omni, town, etc.”
The development of student accommodation over a Lidl in a prime location in the centre of Ballymun will influence future development decisions as well as layout of the the built environments.
There is a growing sense of frustration within the city council and local councillors about the lack of development and interest in the core of Ballymun. (Aside from one local initiative.)
While the original proposal from the current developer for this site in Ballymun was much more modest – a store and one-storey of accommodation – the current proposed development is not what is required either.
The National Development Plan, while being somewhat restrictive on the development of Dublin, still allows for 250,000 more people in the Greater Dublin Area. It is areas in the west, the centre, and the north that will deliver this growth.
Neighbourhoods such as Ballymun, Finglas, and the northern fringes have suddenly become much more important to the strategic growth of a compact city. The government plans to put a metro through the centre of Ballymun.
But the metro depends on high-density and mobile populations, and based on current population figures and the travel patterns of people in this area, the plans are not warranted. Failure to recognise this could jeopardise the economic sustainability of the metro.
As things are, the old shopping centre with a disused Garda station and health centre stand on prime land. The area around this dereliction and the temporary open green area that runs up to Santry Avenue remain undeveloped.
We are in the midst of a housing shortage, and we have an area that has received €1 billion in state investment which is tragically and unforgivably unfinished.
The failure to have households with a greater mix of incomes in an area like Ballymun means that the possibility of increasing investment is diminished.
This means fewer services, fewer places for entertainment, socialising, shopping and employment. Ballymun is just one part of a large swathe of social housing on the north side of Dublin.
All have had poor service and community provision, poor environmental standards and low employment levels. This is not how a quality, dynamic city should look or operate.
Ballymun’s failure to reach its potential as a destination as outlined by BRL, or as a core of a community, is a shame. It’s a huge missed opportunity.