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How O'Devaney Gardens went from 100% public housing to a 'less than perfect' redevelopment

On Monday, councillors voted to push forward with the redevelopment of the site on Dublin’s northside.

Image: RollingNews.ie

MONDAY’S VOTE TO green-light the redevelopment of O’Devaney Gardens on Dublin’s northside brings to an end more than three years of discussions at Dublin City Council, following an 11th hour “agreement” struck between councillors and developer Bartra.

The deal – which came in for heavy criticism – foresees the site being divided between 30% social housing, 30% affordable-rental, 20% affordable purchase and 20% private dwellings.

In the context of a housing crisis and spiraling rents, however, few councillors believe it is perfect deal. It wasn’t so long ago they voted for 100% of the site to be public, mixed-income housing.

So, what happened in the meantime? 

To get a clear picture of how we reached this point, we’ve to head back 10 years ago and work through the motions of local authority debate. 

‘Shifting Focus’

Built in 1954, O’Devaney Gardens – once home to 272 social houses – was originally set to be redeveloped in 2008 through a public-private partnership between developer Bernard McNamara and Dublin City Council.

That deal collapsed due to the economic crash and, in 2012, the council said it could no longer afford to redevelop O’Devaney. A number of blocks were demolished yet no new units were built. 

The council tried, in July 2015, to revive the redevelopment in its Housing Land Initiative to seek out potential developers. Buildings on the site were torn down the following year. 

The council’s Housing Land Initiative aims to work alongside developers to build a mix of social, affordable and private housing on large council-owned sites. 

In July 2016, councillors approved a motion, put forward by Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan, that the redeveloped site should be 100% public, mixed-income housing.

At the time, Ryan, who is no longer a councillor, argued that the aim of her plan was to “shift the focus from looking at whether or not there is a mix of renters and owners [mixed-tenure], to how much people earn,” she told Dublin Inquirer in October 2016. 

Ryan’s proposal catered for 50% of homes rented to the council’s housing list applicants and 50% for those with a “demonstrated housing need”. In other words, those who are above the social housing threshold, but struggling in the private-rented sector.

‘A Solid Outcome’ 

In September 2016, however, Ryan’s plan was rescinded.

Councillors decided instead – after negotiating with then-Housing Minister Simon Coveney – that the homes replacing the old units should be 30% social housing, 20% affordable-to-buy and 50% private residential, following a motion from Sinn Féin. 

At the time, Coveney was originally willing to only earmark 10% of the homes at O’Devaney for social housing. 

Those in favour of a mixed-tenure development at O’Devaney, like Sinn Féin’s Daithí Doolan, argued that having mixed tenure, instead, could lead to a more sustainable community. 

At the time, Sinn Féin’s Doolan said that 30% social housing for the 14-acre site was “a solid outcome” under a Fine Gael minister. 

o'd Cranes tear down 1950s flats at O'Devaney Gardens in 2016. Source: CónalThomas

In December 2016, Dublin City Council said building was set to start on the site in November 2017 and that land on which private housing will be built at O’Devaney will be transferred to a developer in exchange for a project of public benefit.

The council recently completed building on 56 social housing homes for the site. 

Councillors voted to push forward with the plans in January 2017 and the procurement process began. 

In July this year, the council said it planned to use the land for 580 homes under the 30-20-50 mix. 

‘Dublin Agreement’

Following May’s local elections, the ‘Dublin Agreement‘ was drawn up between city councillors from Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Labour and the Social Democrats. 

In it, councillors said they’d “reject any selling off of publicly owned land to private developers within the city boundaries” unless “the monetary benefit to the Council far outweighs the long term social and economic benefit”. 

By September, the council had picked Barta Capital Property as the preferred bidder to develop O’Devaney Gardens. 

Shortly after, councillors were shown plans drawn up by O’Mahony Pike Architects for the redeveloped site, replete with parks, bicycle lanes and community spaces. 

“I suppose what we were trying to do here is we were trying to create a sense of place,” said John O’Mahony of O’Mahony Pike, who added that O’Devaney Gardens is “probably the best site in the North Inner-City”.

Capture Impression of a redeveloped O'Devaney Gardens. Source: O'Mahony Pike Architects

A council report from Deputy Chief Executive Brendan Kenny published that day said that, of the 824 homes on the site – 768 built by Bartra – 411 would be private dwellings, 165 would be affordable-to-buy and 248 would be social housing. 

Under the plan, 50% of the homes at O’Devaney would be sold to Bartra at market prices. 

The council report said that the “affordable” homes would be sold with a 30-40% discount. 

The council also laid out the cost for the affordable units; €240,000 to €250,000 for a one-bedroom apartment and from €300,000 to €320,000 for a two-bedroom apartment.

And for housing at O’Devaney-  €260,000 to €300,000 for a two-bedroom house and €300,000 to €320,000 for a three-bedroom house.

‘The Government’s Door’ 

By the time a new Dublin City Council sat this September – altering the political make-up of the council and bringing a cast of new councillors who hadn’t voted for the original plan in 2016 – the landscape had shifted.

A number of councillors said they’d vote against the O’Devaney plan ahead of a meeting on 7 October. Objections were continually raised around the “affordable” price-tags for the homes. Some councillors said any private homes at O’Devaney was a poor use of State land.

In early October – once had it became clear that the deal would be rejected at the meeting – councillors agreed to delay a vote on whether or not to proceed with the DCC/Bartra-led development at O’Devaney Gardens to allow for discussions with Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy. 

Writing to councillors, Murphy said funding for the O’Devaney redevelopment could be reconsidered if councillors rejected the plan on the table and that it could delay the entire project by five years. 

“Funding from my department to both reduce the cost of homes and help fund much-needed community facilities will also be lost if elected members decide not to proceed with this important project,” Murphy said, in a letter to councillors. 

As Dublin Inquirer reported earlier this month, there was not much scope for changes – due to contrainsts in the procurement process – in the O’Devaney plan that could bring more councillors on board.

Prices for the affordable units were assessed by the National Treasury Management Agency and the council’s own Quantity Surveyor’s Department.

TURNING THE SOD 778_90548752 First phase of O'Devaney Gardens regeneration. Source: RollingNews.ie

Labour said in a statement shortly before the council meeting that it couldn’t back the sale of over 410 units at O’Devaney at over €500,000 per home, despite backing the deal in 2016. 

Labour councillor Alison Gilliland argued that by October 2019, rents in Dublin had risen 30% and that family homelessness had doubled.

“The key reason families find themselves homeless is that they cannot afford private rents,” Gilliland said, adding that the O’Devaney plan did not deliver “for those families and individuals and the reason for that lies squarely at the government’s door.”

‘Full-steam ahead’

Following the deferral, the plan hung in the balance and ‘Dublin Agreement’ councillors moved quickly to secure a deal with Bartra to push the redevelopment through and end years of inertia. 

In the end, councillors said that they had “secured a commitment” from Bartra that 30% of the total units will be purchased from the developer at market price and offered as “affordable-rental” in an attempt the end the deadlock. 

Long-time skeptics of the O’Devaney plans continued to object.

Independent councillor Cieran Perry said O’Devaney Gardens “has the potential for accommodating over 800 public homes but councillors have accepted crumbs.

“Developers shouldn’t be profiting from public lands,” said Perry. 

The “commitment” from Batra CEO Michael Flannery is to sell 247 of the 411 private dwellings at O’Devaney to an Approved Housing Body (AHB), which in turn will offer these units as “affordable-rental”. 

On Monday evening – amid protests at City Hall – councillors voted to approve plans for the redevelopment of O’Devaney Gardens. 

Following the vote, Independent councillor John Lyons said the decision “further entrenches the Fine Gael model of housing delivery which is fully dependent on the private sector to deliver” while Green Party councillor Neasa Houirigan said the deal “will produce a good neighbourhood to live in the long-term and not an empty wasteland while we wait for the perfect conditions to arise”. 

For now, questions remain around what “affordable-rental” will look like at O’Devaney, whether an AHB will actually come on board to deliver these units, where the money to buy these units will come from and whether or not the Department of Housing will play ball.

Bartra is expected to lodge a planning application with Dublin City Council early next year. Once planning is approved, on-site works must begin within four weeks. 

Ultimately, few councillors agree it is a good deal. Yet as one council official told TheJournal.ie this week; “It’s full-steam ahead”.

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