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This is everything that went wrong with Ballymun

Dublin’s chief architect talks about why the original high-rise housing project was such a failure.

The decaying Ballymun flats in 2005
The decaying Ballymun flats in 2005

DUBLIN’S BALLYMUN FLATS were a “really great idea” – but the project was always doomed to fall into decline because of poor planning and government policies.

The city’s chief architect, Ali Grehan, delivered that assessment today at an Ibec CEO Conference themed around design.

In her talk about planning “competitive cities”, Grehan, who was previously head designer with the Ballymun Regeneration company, said the estate was built around a good concept – to construct a new town in response to a housing crisis.

“Unfortunately the approach adopted was singular – it was to create good quality homes and I think the homes created were good quality – but it was an urban design failure,” she said.

“Like so many estates built around the world at the time it was 100% public housing – 5,000 homes constructed around a roundabout … a dead end.”

SOCIAL Park Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Best-laid plans

Work first started on the first Ballymun project in 1965 and it was initially planned to include about 3,000 homes – the vast majority of which would be flats in Ireland’s first high-rise, out-of-centre public housing scheme.

A town centre with shops and other amenities was supposed to be built in time for the earliest waves of tenants, but the construction was delayed for years and residents were left without some basic services.

The development was also plagued with failures including lift faults, heating problems and claims Dublin City Council wasn’t keeping up with the general maintenance backlog.

Ballymun resident prepares to leave Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

But Grehan said the “killer blow” for the project came in 1985 when “with the best intentions” the government brought in a scheme to encourage public-housing tenants to buy their own homes.

“Unfortunately, in Ireland, if you live in a flat as a public tenant you cannot buy that flat, you can buy a house,” she said.

“So anybody in Ballymun flats who wanted to buy had to move out – they had to move to a house and buy a house. So that started a cycle of decline and in 1997 we decided to redevelop Ballymun.”

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern meets residents Then-taoiseach Bertie Ahern at Ballymun in 2004 Source: Cathal McNaughton/PA Archive/Press Association Images

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Going, going…

The original Ballymun towers have been progressively demolished since 2004 and now only the Joseph Plunkett tower still stands, although its last tenants have gradually been shifted out.

They were replaced with low-rise developments for a broader mix of tenants, although there remain problems with general upkeep, vandalism and delays in providing local amenities.

McDermott Tower demolition Source: Haydn West

Construction of a planned €800 million shopping centre to service the area was supposed to be finished two years ago but the process stalled after the developer went under in 2008.

Grehan said this time the council had tried to design the housing “properly in every aspect” taking into account physical, economic, social and cultural considerations.

“Hopefully this time the development will last for more than 30 years … and Ballymun can achieve its strategic potential in the place it occupies, which is this golden rectangle from the airport to the city centre.”

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About the author:

Peter Bodkin  / Editor, Fora

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