Councillors Say They Want to Know What Counts as Too Much Student Housing

It feels pointless turning up to speak against student housing applications, said Sinn Féin Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh.

“I mean, you need a second mortgage to keep up with the cost of the planning objections,” she said, at a meeting of Dublin City Council’s South Central Area Committee recently.

Council Planner Robert Brereton had briefed councillors on plans from Summix FRC Developments for 368 bed spaces of student housing on a block near Newmarket, to be used as short-term lets during holiday periods, in a development called in the planning application “Ardee Point”.

If Ardee Point gets the go-ahead from An Bord Pleanála, there would be 16 approved applications for student-housing projects within a 1km radius of the site, according to a planning report in the developer’s application. Some already built, some not.

Technically, there are 16 applications approved already – as the Ardee Point block already has permission for student housing, but for fewer beds.

At its previous meeting, the council’s South Central Area Committee had heard a presentation on a possible 317 more student-accommodation beds for the Rialto Cinema site on South Circular Road – which is a little more than 1km away from Ardee Point, as the crow flies.

Summix’s planning application makes the case that there is still a need for more student housing in the city, that it will free up rental homes, and “introduce a vibrancy to an inner-city area in need of regeneration”.

But at their most recent meeting, the members of the South Central Area Committee said the area already had enough, focusing on whether there was an “oversaturation” or “overconcentration” of student housing proposed for Dublin 8 – and what exactly these terms mean.

Since June 2017, big student-housing developments proposed for the city have been bypassing Dublin City Council and going straight to An Bord Pleanála for consideration. Councillors have less say now, relegated to submitting written objections.

It’s got to the point where some local councillors want to go talk to An Bord Pleanála in person – about this proposal in particular, and the issue of concentration of student housing in general.

How Much Is Too Much?

When a developer applies for permission to build student housing, they have to submit evidence to demonstrate that there isn’t an overconcentration of it in a neighbourhood.

Earlier, that meant including a map of all student accommodation within 0.25km of a site. Since August 2017, it has meant including a map of all student accommodation within 1km.

However, neither the city development plan nor any other guidelines specify what would be considered overconcentration or oversaturation. “Nobody’s put a number on it,” said People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh, this week.

Crunching numbers, the Ardee Point developer’s planning report says that it estimates that 10.5 percent of the total population in the area would be students if all the student housing developments were built out and filled.

That wasn’t considered an overconcentration in a recently granted scheme, it said. So “we are of the opinion that the same criteria must be applied to the subject scheme”.

The report said the development would regenerate the area, increase density, redevelop a vacant and underused site, and help meet demand for student housing.

But some local councillors are sceptical.

At the meeting, Ní Dhálaigh of Sinn Féin said she had put in an objection to the application on three grounds: the overconcentration of transient accommodation, the studentification of the area, and the infrastructure challenges around traffic management and noise.

Ní Dhálaigh said she had been in the neighbourhood a day earlier talking to residents on one street. “The residents actually aren’t getting a night’s sleep,” she said.

There are tourists and students coming home early hours, merry and loud, suitcases dragged over cobblestones waking up the neighbourhood, said Ní Dhálaigh.

“Is any of that being taken into account?” she said. “Where is the definition for overconcentration?”

MacVeigh said An Bord Pleanála should use the Ardee Point planning application to say something about what the saturation point is. “Will the board determine that?” she asked.

“There is a huge sense in our community, that we have gone beyond saturation point in relation to student accommodation,” said MacVeigh. “The community voice in the so-called democratic planning process isn’t being heard.”

Where student housing is built is the prime issue that comes up in international case studies around planning and student housing, said a February 2019 report by Ernst and Young and Coyne Research for Dublin City Council.

Threshold limits on student housing – or requiring accommodation to be built away from existing concentrations – have proved contradictory as “the result of these restrictions would be to direct such developments to less sustainable locations”, the report says.

MacVeigh says that if there are areas, like Dublin 8, that are getting a lot of student accommodation, “This type of development should come with a plan, and consultation and community,” she said.

How do they make sure they provide amenities that are resident-specific as well as student-specific? she asked. “How do we ensure that there is balance between student beds and residential beds?”

An Oral Hearing

MacVeigh and others at the meeting said they want to go talk to An Bord Pleanála in person. “It has gotten to the point where it really warrants an oral hearing,” she said, this week.

This hearing would be tied to the Ardee Point proposal, but also “looking at the question of saturation of student housing in a more general context”, she said.

A spokesperson for An Bord Pleanála said it can hold oral hearings for cases, and has done that twice for what are known as “strategic housing developments” – the big projects like student housing blocks.

But most appeals and referrals are dealt with based on written submissions, he said. “Oral hearings are the exception rather than the rule.”

Oral hearings are only held when there’s a specific reason, he said. “Such as particularly complex issues or there’s, let’s say, a fairly unique set of circumstances where what the board wants to do is get a set of parties around a table so to speak and to actually hear from each of the parties.”

The spokesperson said that the board hadn’t received a request in this case for an oral hearing and – while it can sometimes trigger an oral hearing itself without a request – it doesn’t have plans to hold one for this scheme.

Ardee Point

If built, the Ardee Point complex would be operated by NIDO Student, “a luxury high-end” operator that provides accommodation “akin to a boutique hotel”, says a developer’s report.

It points to figures for demand and supply in a February 2019 report by Ernst and Young and Coyne Research for Dublin City Council, as evidence it is needed.

The report said there were 6,360 student beds between the canals, with the potential for roughly 14,000 bed spaces by 2024, given those working their way through the planning process. That would meet one-third of predicted demand, it said.

Michelle Byrne, vice president for campaigns for the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), said that her union has always been against luxury student accommodation.

“We don’t need luxury bits, when it comes to the cinemas, the gyms, and students don’t necessarily want that because they can’t afford the price tags,” Byrne said. They ideally want on-campus affordable student accommodation, she said.

The USI are going to start to lodge objections to planning applications for student accommodation on the basis that the projects aren’t suitable and cost too much, Byrne said.

That rents-too-high argument might not fit the usual template for planning objections, she said. (They’d generally be about issues such as height, traffic, and so on rather than affordability.)

But “we’re going to be monitoring these new builds that are coming on”, she said.

Author:

Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at lois@dublininquirer.com.

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