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Dublin: 5 °C Thursday 12 December, 2019
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Should Dublin get a high-rise skyline? Maybe, but not to solve the housing crisis

New guidelines are going to push our cities higher – but is that the best way to house our growing population?

A sunset in Dublin's Docklands.
A sunset in Dublin's Docklands.
Image: RollingNews.ie

IT IS OFT repeated as a quick solution to the housing crisis: Dublin needs to build up, not out. Dublin’s skyline is too low, we’re not making the most of the space that we have.

The average height of a building in Dublin city centre is four to six storeys, with buildings being around two to three storeys in the suburbs and heights gradually decreasing as you move away from the city.

Although Dublin is described as being low-rise, it’s almost a third lower than Paris – which is also categorised as a low-rise city. Even when refraining from comparing Dublin with cities in the US and Australia – which have the advantage of population planning and less buildings in need of historical protection – it still trails behind other European cities’ building heights.

Developers have accused local authorities of being too conservative in adjudicating on whether planning applications for buildings up to 20 or 30 storeys high should be permitted – even in specific areas where higher buildings are allowed, like the Docklands.

To tackle this, Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy released new guidelines where he dramatically shifts what has been the norm until now. He called for councils to lift “overly restrictive maximum heights” and encouraged authorities to “actively pursue” taller buildings, particularly in the “main centres of the city” so as to indicate the most activity within a city.

452 Minister Murphy opened Focus Ireland new 31 unit_90570648 Housing Eoghan Murphy today officially opened Focus Ireland’s new 31 unit development at John’s Lane West. Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

In the foreword of the guidelines, he makes the emotive argument: “Our cities and our towns must grow upwards, not just outwards, if we are to meet the many challenges ahead. Constant expansion of low-density suburban development around our cities and towns cannot continue.” 

The guidelines state that continued sprawl would lead to increasing costs of both infrastructure, and “the energy-intensive transport systems needed to feed it”.

There are serious and unsustainable carbon emission implications due to increased commuting distances to the city and town centres, never mind the sheer waste of time in travelling, when instead we could be living.

In this week’s episode of our Ireland 2029 podcast, we looked at whether Dublin should be given an iconic high-rise skyline, examining the reasons against doing so, how much it would cost – and what it would change about our city if we did build upwards.

tower cranes 819_90570236 Cranes in Dublin city. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Currently, the maximum height for buildings in Dublin city is 60 metres. Liberty Hall, for example, is 59.4 metres tall, squeezing in under that limit. Other local authorities have different height limits, which Murphy had previously called “arbitrary”.

There are other areas of the city that allow for taller structures, however, called Strategic Development Zones (SDZ). They’re located in the Docklands, George’s Quay, and areas around Heuston and Connelly stations – away from the historic core of the city.  

“I don’t think you’d be building high-rise in the historic core,” Paul O’Brien, chair of Henry J Lyons Architects, told us. “I don’t think that that is appropriate.”

“But [it should be in] areas with really good rail networks, really good transportation systems, so the Docklands, Heuston, Connolly … They’re all areas that should be developed for high-rise. But then you’d have to assess each of these areas, and each building within these areas … in terms of visual impact that they’re not impacting on the historic core.”

johnny-ronan-3-3-390x285 A mock-up from planners of what it will look like. Source: Dublin City Council

Lyons is the architect behind the Tara Street building proposed by Company Tanat Ltd – run by high-profile Celtic Tiger developer Johnny Ronan – which has been given the green light after a two-year attempt to get it approved. 

It will be 88 metres high and have 22 storeys when it’s complete, making it the tallest building in Ireland (Dublin’s tallest tower is currently Capital Dock, which is currently among the tallest at 79 metres).

The plans included a 110-bedroom hotel and a rooftop bar.

Fear of heights

After approval for the Tara Street building was given, Dublin city officer with An Taisce Kevin Duff said that the decision was “gravely erroneous” and that the tower would be “a massive intrusion on the established character of the city”.

Elaborating on that point, he said: “This new building will be almost directly opposite the Custom House, and in winter time, you’re going to have a shadow crawling the facade of the Custom House. It will also be highly visible from Trinity College, which is just at the end of the street, and from O’Connell Bridge, and from College Green also – it will stick up like a sore thumb.”

Image from iOS George's Quay Plaza from Fairview. Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

He said that there was no issue with the building itself but with the placement of it, whether it blends in with the rest of the streetscape.

Duff continued: “The civilised approach would be to protect the scale, character and skyline of the inner city, and you locate high-rise buildings outside where they won’t impact on the historic core.

There’s a lot of talk about the skyline … what skyline means really is not so much the view of the city across the rooftops, but the feel and the scale of the streets, the consistent scale and character of Dublin’s historic streets.

‘Enormous knock-on effect’ 

Orla Hegarty, assistant professor at UCD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, said that it was “a mistake to think that it’s either sprawl or high-rise”.

There has been a lot of work done over a lot of years on how to do that sustainably, how to gradually build up the city, which locations are appropriate for taller buildings, and what capacity there is in the city now as it stands.

Hegarty said that high-rise builds cost more to construct and use more energy to transport people, water, and electricity to its top floors; meaning they can cost more to buy and maintain. Because of this, private developers are more likely to propose offices, hotels, and high-end apartments for construction, rather than affordable housing.

She also argued that high-rises take longer to build, meaning that if there were to be another financial crash, tall builds could be abandoned half-built. 

“If we were to decide tomorrow that every vacant site in Dublin could have a high-rise vacant tower on it,” Hegarty said, “the knock-on effect would be enormous”.

We would see land values skyrocket in those locations. We would see developers in a long process of looking for approval and finance … [And] if you suddenly put 1,000 families in one building, where do their children go to school? That may not have been planned for.

Dublin Stock Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

Gary Cooper of Henry J Lyons Architects said: “When we look at other cities around Europe, each of these cities have a historic core, and then they acknowledge specific zones for development, we’re not talking high-rise – we’re talking mid-rise…”

For Dublin to be competitive in the future, I think it’s extremely important that we need to make living and working opportunities that acknowledge density in the city centre so that Dublin can be competitiveness against these other European cities.

When asked if it were possible that Dublin would get a high-rise skyline in 10 years, O’Brien said: “At the moment, we haven’t seen any of what Minister Murphy has described, it’s really been more of the same.”

“So if we were to grab the opportunity to grab it and get there by 2029 there would have been a shift, a far greater shift, within the local authorities.”

When asked about what had changed based on Eoghan Murphy’s guidelines, Dublin City Council said that in assessing building applications it still has to consider “proximity to good public transport, contribution to placemaking/streetscape, daylight/microclimate impacts, effect on the historic environment”.

It added that the guidelines “expressly state” that there wouldn’t be “blanket caps on height over a general area”, adding:

The City Council experience is that sustainable densities and good liveable cities can be achieved by a considered combination of streets up to six storeys with landmark buildings at key locations.

In a statement responding to who would build high-rise developments that would provide affordable housing for people, the Department of Housing said: 

“It is not the role of the department to specify who will build particular developments. However, the department has issued guidance on building height in urban areas to assist in the practical planning implications of the strategic objectives contained in the National Planning Framework.

In particular these guidelines seek to assist and guide in the development of more compact urban centres that will enable a shift away from an unsustainable model of ever expanding suburbs. 

- with reporting from Nicky Ryan

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Source: Ireland 2029/SoundCloud

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