Shutting out the light on Dublin's North Wall.
David v Goliath fight over Spencer Dock development
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
City planning and with it the question of high rise moved centre stage this week as the Spencer Dock Development oral hearing of Bord Pleanála's appeal tribunal which opened in the Gresham Hotel on Tuesday. The Spencer Dock Development Company (SDDC) wants to build a new city on the 52-acre site between the IFSC and the Point Depot.
The proposed development is valued at the astronomical figure of £1.2 billion. The plan includes two hotels, eleven apartment blocks with 3,012 units (2.35 million square feet), nine office buildings, some of which would be as high as 95 metres with 22 storeys (giving a total of 2.03 million square feet), retail units, a 15-storey Technology Centre, a seven-storey National Conference Centre, an underground railway station plus 6,805 car parking spaces.
``The project is massive,'' says Sinn Féin Councillor Christy Burke. ``It would dwarf Liberty Hall, which is 59 metres high. The big business financiers and developers have come in over the heads of the Dublin Docklands Authority (DDA) with a project worth over a thousand million pounds and have trampled over the rights of local people to have a say in the development of their area. We don't want high rise development here in this city.''
``The fact that a few developers can assemble a finance package of this size doesn't give them the right to dictate to the people who have lived here in generations. Dublin people don't want Manhattan,'' says Christy.
Last August, Dublin Corporation gave partial planning permission for the conference centre and one office block but only outline planning permission for the rest of the development, which means that SDDC would have to submit new plans. This is the decision which SDDC is contesting at the oral hearing.
Behind the SDDC are Treasury Holdings, the multi-millionaire developers Johnny Ronan, Richard Barrett and Harry Crosbie, along with CIE, which owns the 52-acre site.
Ranged against SDDC at the tribunal are local communities including the East Wall Residents Association, and the Docklands Community Against High Rise, as well as An Taisce, The Georgian Society and two councillors, Ciaran Cuffe (Green Party) and Gerry Breen (Fine Gael).
The only appellant against SDDC who is backed by big finance is another developer, Dermot Desmond, the main instigator of the IFSC development next door, who says, no doubt correctly, that the size of the proposed development ``is driven purely by economic considerations of maximising commercial floor space within the site''.
Community groups protested at the opening of the tribunal against the inequalities in the planning system. Gerry Fay, spokesperson for the North Wall Community Association, says ``it is communities like ours, whose very existence is threatened, who have no funds to mount an appeal or employ expensive consultants to give evidence on our behalf''. As it is, the association has been doing bob-a-job fundraising to pay for professional representation at the tribunal.
SDDC, on the other hand, is expected to call between 20 and 25 different consultancy firms from around the world to present evidence in support of its case. ``It is grossly unfair,'' says Fay. ``The voice of the community is at an extreme disadvantage even before we start.''
As Sinn Féin Councillor Nicky Kehoe says: ``The new planning bill, instead of charging people money to appeal development decisions, should make provision to fund them. It is, after all, in everyone's interest that planning decisions should take account of local peoples' interests. It is quite unjust that local people should be penalised for objecting to multi-million pound projects which will destroy their environment and their living conditions. Local people can't afford to take on these developers. And why was the Dublin Docklands Authority ever set up if the plans they drew up for the area can be ignored?''
Marie O'Reilly, chair of the North Port Dwellers Residents Association, who lives in one of a row of houses in Manor Street at the very edge of the SDDC site, told a public meeting at the end of last year how the people in her street had been offered money by SDDC to encourage them to support the development. When this was refused, the consortium had simply ignored them.
``It's not that we are against development of the area,'' she says. ``We supported the DDA master plan, which proposed a 3.5 million square foot development, not the 6 million square foot development with which SDDC says it hopes to leave the tribunal. With their plans our street will end up as a wind tunnel, a thoroughfare, a parking lot, all in the dark shadow of high rise. Its not what we want for our community.''
A lot of people will be watching the result of the tribunal. Not least of them will be the people in the Docklands area, right across the river from the SDDC site, who are strongly opposed to the high rise developments proposed for their area and who have won major victories at George's Quay, Thorncastle Street and Barrow Street.
``When An Bord Pleanála rejected the George's Quay Development, they stated as a reason that it would detrimentally affect the historic precincts of the Custom House, Trinity College and the Liffey Quays. Yet Trinity College, on 22 September, approached Dublin Corporation looking themselves for planning permission for an 80-metre high hotel on the former An Post site at Westland Row and Pearse Street,'' Alan Curtis, Co-ordinator of the South East Network, which represents community and youth organisations, residents and resource centres in the South East Inner City, says. The South East Network called on Trinity College to drop these plans, and promised to fight the proposed development.
other developer who will be watching the tribunal closely will be David Mackey of Flag Properties, formerly of the Sean Quinn Group. His Cavan-based consortium bought a half-acre site directly opposite the IFSC on City Quay last week for the outrageous price of £8 million, the equivalent of £17 million per acre, for office development. ``They couldn't make money on this site unless they are allowed to build a high rise, ``says Sinn Féin's Daithí Doolan.
``Ultimately,'' says Doolan, who has been an active campaigner against high rise in the Docklands, ``it will be down to the government and the Department of the Environment, with their new Planning Bill, to decide guidelines for building density. And where does that leave councillors, who are supposed to have authority over planning decisions? And where does it leave the communities that councillors are supposed to represent?''
Meanwhile, there is a great deal of money swilling around looking for profitable investment in development, and plenty of developers who can well afford to fight the councillors and people every square foot of the way. There is a lot of money riding the high rise development horse. The next weeks at the tribunal will tell whether that horse comes in.