“It is considered that the site of Liberty Hall is of national historic and social significance and is located at a prominent and sensitive location fronting onto the River Liffey, within the historic city core of Dublin and adjacent to the Custom House, a protected structure of primary importance in the state. Having regard to policy SC18 of the planning authority, as set out in the Dublin City Development Plan 2011 – 17, which seeks to protect and enhance the skyline of the inner city inter alia, and notwithstanding the quality of the architectural design, it is considered that the scale and in particular, the height of the development as proposed, would be unacceptably dominant in the city, would be visually intrusive in the streetscape and riverscape and would seriously injure the visual amenities of the city and its skyline. Furthermore, the proposed development would seriously detract from the setting and character of the Custom House, would intrude on the O’Connell Street and Grafton Street Architectural Conservation Areas, Board Direction and other important vistas in the city. The proposed development would, therefore be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.” An Bord Pleanala’s decision on 13th November 2012 rejecting the proposed redevelopment of SIPTU’s Liberty Hall in central Dublin
“As Environment Minister I not only want to protect the environment, but also do everything I can to create jobs and develop the economy. This scheme will help with construction jobs and I hope create opportunities in the retail sector” Northern Ireland’s environment minister, Alex Atwood, announcing a major development in Newtownards, county Down in October 2012
Developers have a love/hate relationship with An Bord Pleanala, the quango established in 1977 to act as a politically independent final body of appeal when considering changes to our built environment. Mostly developers have a dim view of the board and veteran developer , Paddy Kelly, in a reflective speech at the MacGill Summer School in 2010 described their decisions as capricious and not making sense. In the past year, An Bord Pleanala has put an end to a proposed development of a children’s hospital at the site of the Mater Hospital in central Dublin and today it has stopped the redevelopment of Dublin’s once-tallest building, Liberty Hall. What will be infuriating to some, in the context of our economic crisis, is the preciousness of the reasons given by Bord Pleanala for their decisions, and it may be time to amend the legislation governing how we deal with development to place broader economic considerations to the forefront.
For visitors to Dublin who might have a fresh perspective, the “injury to the visual amenities of the city and its skyline” sounds like complete tosh. Take our premier upmarket shopping street, Grafton Street. At street level, you have a mish-mash of McDonalds, Burger King (two of), mobile phone shops, newsagents, gift shops with the odd smattering of the upmarket retail offerings that you would expect from this street and of the two main anchors on the street – M&S and Brown Thomas – only the last has anything like cachet. Above street level, you have anything from tattoo parlours to internet cafes. And as for the architecture itself, you’ll count about 10 architectural styles though the dominant one is “borderline dilapidated” O’Connell Street is just as bad and at the north end of that street, you have Joe O’Reilly’s derelict site which has been in limbo for years, amid financial issues and planning for Metro North. And although there has been development in the area, much of it resembles the Dublin of “Strumpet City”. And between O’Connell Street and Grafton Street, many might think Dublin’s “streetscape and cityscape” were ruined in the 1890s when the ugly Loopline rail bridge was constructed just down river from O’Connell Bridge which interrupts what is an attractive array of quayside architecture, particularly the Custom House. So the preciousness of “injuring the visual amenities” of the city seems more than a little la-di-da when you take a fresh look at the city.
We might benefit on this side of the Border from studying the recent developments in Northern Ireland where at their Department of the Environment, the minister, the SDLP’s Alex Atwood, acts as a final body of appeal – though his decisions are technically open to judicial review – and has recently ramped up the rate at which major scheme approvals are granted, including the development of an extension at the Ards shopping centre and a major development at Castlebawn on the edge of Newtownards.
As for An Bord Pleanala, it may be politically independent though the appointees are selected by the Minister for the Environment Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, but their mandate seems disproportionately skewed towards subjective aesthetics and in the midst of an economic depression, our legislators might consider if the mandate of the body be modified or prorogued for a few years. As for the two rejections this year, the Mater development was indeed colossal and the Liberty Hall development would have taken the crown for Dublin’s tallest building back from Montevetro on Barrow Street but with 15% unemployment, an IMF funding programme, a 10% decline in national income and a still-awful deficit, economic considerations should trump overnice concerns for “injury to the skyline and cityscape”