The Constitution Hill flats have seen better days.
Ground-floor bedsits are blocked off with metal sheeting, the stairwells are dark and littered. Residents say there are persistent problems with damp, so roofs sag overhead.
Now, though, Dublin City Council has plans to redevelop these apartments.
Those plans have to meet the needs of residents still there, says Gillian Brien, who has lived in the flats for nearly 17 years, and grew up in the markets area of Dublin – the name given to this part of the inner city.
“It must be sustainable for the next generation,” she said on Friday morning, sat in the living room of her home with her friends Linda Molloy and Louise Browne.
The conversation turns around the need for the council to engage with residents, and what they see as the relative lack of communication to date.
“If they work with us, we’ll work with them,” says Molloy. “But they’re not doing that. We’re just left here.” The stairwells are frightening, she says. “It looks like a slum.”
“Let the residents know like, if there’s a plan or there’s not a plan, so we all know what we’re doing,” she says.
At the moment, amenities in the Constitution Hill complex – like kitchens and bathrooms – are substandard, and the redevelopment is an “opportunity to create larger homes and improve quality”, as well as community facilities, said Cecilia Naughton from the City Architects department, at last Tuesday’s meeting of the council’s Central Area Committee.
They’ve looked at different options for the site, Naughton said. Such as “leaving the blocks, the buildings as they are, improving the space standards with the requirements we have, building new blocks, or demolition and new build”.
They’re opting, at the moment, for a combo of retrofit and new build, the presentation shows. That means upgrading the blocks that are there, and adding new floors above, and next to, the existing floors – and building a new creche and retail unit.
There are now 88 homes including bedsits in the Constitution Hill flat complex, says Sean Smith, the housing manager for the northwest inner-city area. The plan is for 100 homes there after the redevelopment.
The bedsits haven’t been let and aren’t fit to let, says Smith. “So we have 60 let-able units, rather than 88. We’ll be replacing 60 units with 100,” he says.
So far, there’s “the bones of a plan”, says Smith.
It still has to get stage-one approval from the Department of Housing – which is confirmation of approval for design expenditure. When they get that, says Smith, they will engage with residents.
At the same meeting last week, Smith and Naughton also updated councillors on plans for the blocks of social homes at St Mary’s Place and Dorset Street.
For that complex, the plan is a bit different. That’s more of a total rip-them-down and build-anew approach, according to the presentation.
Naughton from the City Architects said that Dorset Street-St Mary’s Place has 113 apartments, and there are plans to replace them with 115 homes at first. That would be in the first two phases of a three-phase project.
The third site on Dorset Street may be held for a private developer or an approved housing body. It hasn’t been decided yet, said Smith, at the same meeting. “It depends on funding streams.”
The Cost Question
In the past, some housing experts have questioned whether these vacant council homes should be refurbished at a cheaper rate in the meantime, while plans for redevelopment progress.
Others have pointed to the need for changes in government procurement, to ensure that affordable and social-housing projects don’t cost the state more than they need to.
The cost of each new apartment unit in these schemes is expected to be roughly €300,000, said Smith, the council’s housing manager for the area. “It’s cheaper for a refurb than for a new build.”
That figure seemed high, said Sinn Féin Councillor Gaye Fagan at the meeting: “Why does it always cost DCC so much to build units, like?”
Said Smith: “I’m aghast equally at the price it costs us. […] I can only say that we go to the market, and the market tells us what they’re willing to build for us.”
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said by email that a breakdown of costs isn’t available at this time “as the project is only in the initial stages”.
For comparison, the council is projecting that its redevelopment of the Dominick Street homes will be even costlier.
The residential part of that scheme, which is a mix of one-bed, two-bed, and three-bed apartments, “is projected to cost in the order of €383,000 per unit excluding VAT”, a spokesperson from the council press office said by email in November.
For Constitution Hill, once the Department of Housing has approved the designs and funding, the council asks the public what they think – through the process known as “Part VIII”. After that, it’s out to tender and then to contract.
“Residents will have a better view of what a unit should look like,” says independent Councillor Christy Burke. “It’s great to even see proposals, it’s long overdue.”
According to the presentation at the Central Area Committee, building works are scheduled to begin in early 2019.
“The time frame is quite tight, but I think it’s achievable,” says Smith. But, he says, there are no other examples of blocks being completed in this time frame.
One issue raised by residents and councillors is how best to “decant” – in other words, how to move residents out while the work is being done, which is expected to take a year.
Decanting is expected to happen in phases and and residents could be moved into the flats on North King Street and Dominick Street, while builders work on Constitution Hill, says Smith.
(Although, the Dominick Street homes is not scheduled to be done until 2020, according to the council’s April Housing Supply report.)
Brien, who is a People Before Profit candidate for Dublin Central, and her friends say they are worried about the decanting. “We will only move block by block. We’re actually genuinely afraid that they’re going to gentrify the area and want the working class out,” she says.
For her, what’s always worked about the area is the social mix.
“What’s very unique about it – and it’s always been this way – it has the Law Society in it, it has businesses and it has the working class, and we’ve always mixed together – we’ve always had employment,” she says.
Residents need and want the redevelopment but they find it hard to trust council, says Brien. Look at what happened to the Dominick Street complex across the street nearly six years ago.
They knocked them down “and told the residents, ‘You’ll being moving back in,’ and five years later it’s still flat grass when we’re in the biggest housing crisis. So we don’t trust them,” she says.
Smith says it’s his intention to ensure that the community is kept together, and that it’s easier to work with groups of people that you know. “You can build up trust. Trust goes both ways. It’s important to keep open key lines of communication.”
Molloy, the chair of the complex’s residents’ association, says there’s been little communication with residents about the redevelopment. They haven’t been told anything officially about the it, she says.
Smith says communication has been informal so far. “Once we have approval, we’ll talk one-on-one with each family,” he said.
Burke, the independent councillor, says the redevelopment plans are very recent. Residents haven’t yet been informed because it’s just a proposal, he said.
Says Brien: “We need the architects to come in, see the conditions, meet the families.”
She says she wants to the redevelopment to be sustainable in the long term. “There’s no point in building something, redeveloping an area and it’s going to be a ghetto in 20 years’ time,” she says.
Browne mentions lifts for the elderly in the flats, many of whom are on Zimmer frames. Molloy talks about dampness and overcrowding.
All three agree that they need gates to keep children safe, so that those who don’t live there aren’t coming into the stairwells to inject drugs.
“The complex has been neglected for years,” says Burke, so residents who are nervous about gentrification should be told that they’re not going to be pushed out.
Burke says he is glad to see the redevelopment pushing ahead. “Constitution Hill was always left out in the cold,” he says.