The air smells of cement.
“You’d be able to write the 10 commandments in the dust,” says Tommy Byrne, 71, outside his house on Upper Mayor Street.
The Luas tracks skirt by where he stands, not far from the Spencer Dock stop. Opposite, a hoist carries sheets of glass up a five-storey building. Its control unit beeps.
Hammers on metal echo through the empty shell. To the west, a pneumatic drill reverberates down the Luas corridor.
“I used to sit out here in the heat and watch it all go by,” says Byrne. “The only way I’d sit out here now is if I had a suit of armour on me.”
These days, his house sits in the shadows of the surrounding buildings. All day, every day.
Tony McDonnell lives in another of the 10 two-storey houses facing onto Upper Mayor Street, isolated in the midst of hoardings and the sheen of corporate buildings.
From his study, he points toward the unfinished tower behind the Spencer Dock Luas stop. At the moment his house gets light, but it won’t for too much longer, he says. “Even if that is six storeys, we won’t be getting light,” he says.
The land around McDonnell’s house is all owned by the semi-state Córas Impair Éireann (CIÉ). It’s being developed by the Ronan Group.
Last week, the Spencer Place Development Company Limited brought a High Court action looking for Dublin City Council to review height guidelines in the city’s special development zones. This company is a joint venture between Ronan Group Real Estate and Colony Capital.
If they succeed in their action, Dublin City Council would have to include the increase in the heights, introduced by the Department of Housing last December, into this area where Byrne and McDonnell live.
These local residents say this goes against what was promised them. More frustratingly, they say, the way the planning system now is, they’ve lost their right to a voice in what happens next.
Five years back, after rounds of talks with developers, local residents, planners and council officials, councillors voted through the North Lotts and Grand Canal Strategic Development Zone (SDZ).
The SDZ was a plan for the area: it showed how high buildings could be in different places, what facilities the neighbourhoods needed, and the balance of offices for jobs and homes to live in.
“In my opinion, it was a legally binding contract,” says Marie O’Reilly, another member of the local community.
Residents had several promises written into the plan. These included defensive zones around houses, which have yet to be delivered on, says McDonnell.
There was also supposed to be social housing to make sure there are “socially balanced communities” – but the Docklands Oversight and Consultative Forum has repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of it.
Buildings were only supposed to go so high, too. “With the height, we asked that our homes be protected,” says O’Reilly.
O’Reilly, McDonnell and others who live around here sat through a 10-day An Bord Pleanála oral hearing to make sure they got a say, and their homes were protected.
The SDZ generally allows for flexibility in building heights. But An Bord Pleanála found that for “city blocks between Mayor Street and Sheriff Street”, it was “considered that the flexibility envisaged in the scheme for additional height would not be appropriate in this area”.
An SDZ is supposed to be a holistic approach to planning, says Orla Hegarty, a lecturer in the UCD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy.
“[I]t is an integrated development plan that includes the schools and creches, the shops, the roads, the public transport, roads and parking, the sewage, the water supply and other amenities,” Hegarty says. “It ensures everything is optimum and sequenced for building the entire neighbourhood.”
It makes planning permissions faster, then, “because once the SDZ is approved, every developer and land owner has certainty about what is approved and what infrastructure is available for their site, within those guidelines,” she says.
It was a contract with “carefully balanced rights”, says O’Reilly. Everybody had the chance to tell An Bord Pleanála what they wanted, and once the board ruled, that was it.
Rewriting the SDZ
Then last December, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy brought in new guidelines that knocked everything off balance again.
These guidelines removed height restrictions and required planning authorities to identify where increased building heights “will be actively pursued for both redevelopment, regeneration and infill development”.
And, crucially, according to the Department of Housing’s guidelines, they “take precedence over any conflicting, policies and objectives of … strategic development zone planning schemes”.
The question now is whether Murphy’s guidelines have wiped away the height restriction in the SDZ where Byrne, McDonnell and O’Reilly live. Or whether there needs to be a full review of the SDZ now.
According to a Ronan Group legal opinion, a review of the SDZ isn’t necessary – limits on building heights should be null and void as a result of the department’s guidelines. But that’s not what Dublin City Council City Planner John O’Hara has said.
In his “Briefing Note on City Development Plan and Height Guidelines”, O’Hara wrote that the minister’s new guidelines on height restrictions do not apply “to an approved SDZ Planning Scheme”.
“However, the Planning Authority/Development Agency must, on the coming into force of the Guidelines, carry out a review, to ensure the NPF/Guidelines are reflected in the Scheme. The review of the existing DCC SDZ Planning Schemes has commenced,” O’Hara wrote.
Says Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam: “As I understand it, they [the department’s guidelines] don’t supercede the SDZ. What the regulations state is that there has to be a review of the SDZ, but it doesn’t automatically allow for change to the height.”
Unravelling an SDZ
“The houses were built in 1847,” said O’Reilly. She lives at 2 Mayor Street, also in the row by the Spencer Dock Luas stop.
Her husband grew up in the house and his grandfather before him, she says.
The first six houses facing the Luas line are all dwarfed by three cranes behind them. Outside number 1, a white plastic sign hangs from the window: “Local TDs and Councillors, Protect our Family Homes”.
These houses were here at the genesis of North Wall, says O’Reilly – built for British Rail workers, who spent their time working on the new lines crisscrossing the country.
The earliest buildings in North Wall emerged from this, says O’Reilly, including St Laurence O’Toole’s Church, which was also built in 1847. O’Reilly volunteers there some mornings in the parish office.
O’Reilly says the SDZ was agreed with the community back in 2013. Some of it seemed okay at the time, she says.
McDonnell disagrees that any consultation took place with the community at all.
The council “would say there was”, says McDonnell. “But we were told, ‘We can’t allow a group of houses to prevent the economic recovery of this city.’”
Unravelling the SDZ after it’s been through layers of consultation, research, and design, throws up problems, says Hegarty.
“If you suddenly allow a building to be higher, then the rest of that stuff doesn’t work,” she says. “Because, you know, 10 extra floors and the school isn’t big enough, the drains aren’t big enough, public transport, it puts everything out of kilter.”
That’s how O’Reilly understands it. It’s like the threads of a spider web, she says – remove one thread and it falls apart.
Directly across the road from O’Reilly and McDonnell’s houses, there’s the skeleton of a half-finished tower.
This is to be the headquarters of Salesforce, an American software company. At the moment, the site has planning permission for four buildings, ranging in floor levels from seven storeys to nine storeys.
As well as being the Salesforce hub, plans – already granted permission – show room for a hotel, office space, retail space, apartments, and a community centre.
In January of this year, an amended planning permission was submitted to Dublin City Council, looking to increase the building height from seven to 10 storeys on building one, and to add two storeys onto building two.
It’s a similar story with the site to the west of McDonnell and O’Reilly’s homes.
Under the most recent planning permission, from February 2019, the Spencer Place Development Company Limited – which is also developing this site – says it wants 13 storeys, not seven storeys. In block 1, and it wants 11 storeys, not 6 storeys, in block 2.
Nobody in the local community will be able to afford to live in any of those apartments, says O’Reilly.
In the parish office of St Laurence O’Toole’s Church, O’Reilly spreads letters across the table between empty church collection baskets and baptismal forms, sent from Johnny Ronan to Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.
Parishioners knock on the office’s window – an elderly woman arranging an anniversary mass, a young woman registering a newborn’s birth. O’Reilly deals with them between reading the letter.
She reads a line from the letter aloud – about their “mega building” for Salesforce and needing to get planning permission from the council for two more floors.
“They can easily grant it if they are minded to do so. But we need your assistance as we are running into roadblocks and red tape,” she reads.
O’Reilly marks another passage of the letter on the page in blue biro. “This is particularly where he is trying to lobby the minister to change planning regulation,” she says.
She says that she and the community are not being heard. Because of the rules around the SDZ, they lost the right to appeal planning decisions, she says.
Yet the developer writes to the minister about planning applications going on with regard to the developments on her doorstep, and then has the financial backing to go to the High Court, something that O’Reilly says, the local community could never afford.
“The local community are being totally cut out of any process,” says O’Reilly.
The buildings going up around them won’t be places they’ll be able to afford to live, or places where people will build communities with deep roots.
“We’re not building community,” she says. “You build a transient community, your school goes, your church goes. The whole fabric of community breaks down.”
Labour Party Councillor Andrew Montague, who is head of the council’s planning committee, says routes that there were before for the community to feed their opinions, ideas and needs into development plans, and plans for the SDZ, have been overwritten.
“Basically there can be no public consultation on heights any more, that’s not our decision any more,” he says. “That’s a decision that the minister has taken out of the public realm and there’s serious implications in that.”
Says Hegarty: “Making significant changes – such as has happened with the apartment standards and height limits – outside the normal process of consultation and research, disrupts the development cycle and encourages land speculation.”
It’s a little after 10am on Upper Mayor Street and in Byrne’s living room, the lights are on.
Toys are scattered around the floor. Shelves are full with miniature Thomas the Tank Engine trains. There are electronic books for toddlers on the table.
“I have the grandchildren here with me,” says Byrne from the kitchen where the lights are also on.
“I’m lucky enough to have a house big enough. Otherwise they’d be with the other 10,000 or so homeless,” he says.
As Byrne walks back into the living room, he flicks the switch. Only a little light leaks from the back kitchen’s window. It’s so dark you would barely see what’s on the table.
As the new buildings rise towards the sky, people forget about those living down below, forget that the little houses are people’s homes, says O’Reilly. “Your home is your home.”