By Kevin Duff
The look of shopfronts in Dublin City Centre is in freefall, owing to an absence of effective planning enforcement for shopfront planning permissions and unauthorised shopfronts, signage and uses. While Grafron St and environs and oft-maligned O’Connell St have developed some shopfront pride over the last decade, the streets nearest the Liffey – Capel St, Westmoreland Street, Dame Street, Parliament Street, Temple Bar generally and the Quays – are becoming black spots of lower-order shops and fast-food restaurants with cheap, garish shopfronts and signage.
The increased problem of poor quality shopfronts is city- and country- wide, but is most insidious in these streets because they comprise the most visible areas of the city to visitors, right on the tourism nodes of Trinity College, Dublin Castle and our renowned ‘cultural quarter’, Temple Bar; and set a tone for the country beyond.
The Council has granted permission for too many licensed premises and fast-food take-aways in the area in contradiction of its development-plan policies to ensure a balanced mix of uses on city streets and prevent an over-concentration of this use but it is also not good at maintaining the public spaces entrusted to it. For example the quality of the pervasive new granite around the city is dubious – arguably it does not have any of the qualities, such as imperviousness, required of that substance. And the Council is not good at maintaining the beautiful old granite kerbing.
The recession is creating a big increase in closure and vacancy rates, and a proliferation of discount shops, and other outlets who compete for the cheap and cheerful look that might just denote better value, in an era when the signal it gives about quality is ignored. In this environment, increased vigilance is needed to uphold standards and prevent major deterioration in streets. Instead, there seems to be little planning enforcement in operation at all.
The City Council’s never-too-dynamic Planning Enforcement department has been cut back and its staff reduced to a bare minimum. Enforcement is a ‘frontline’ planning service and should be the last area to be cut back. The City Council Roads Department, for example, would appear to be inefficient and profligate (a survey by An Taisce in September 2010 found more than one hundred bare and redundant traffic poles standing in prominent locations around the city centre. A pole costs the taxpayer €500 to erect!)
The lack of enforcement and active management of streets contributes to the ongoing loss of independent shops and businesses with ‘personality’ – as exemplified by the recent closures of Guiney’s and Frawley’s, the Opus music store on South Great Georges St and the replacement in Temple Bar of Fitzers and then Frankie’s Steakhouse with a McDonalds and of Bruno’s restaurant with a Café Costa.
Dublin lacks ‘institutional’ stores and shops that are passed from one generation to the next. In a boom-town with feeble planning regulation, why not make Daddy’s toy-shop into a themed super pub (with toys in the window)? The condition of the area is at odds with the designations of Conservation Areas, Areas of Special Planning Control, Protected Structures, land-use zoning, the shopfront design guidelines etc. During the boom years An Bord Pleanála could generally be relied upon to overturn and curtail the give-permission-at-all-cost approach of Dublin City Council planning department. However it has more recently reflected a permissive attitude concerning certain ‘lower order’ uses in the capital’s city centre.
CASE STUDY: CENTRA, 46 WELLINGTON QUAY/13 TEMPLE BAR (PROTECTED STRUCTURE)
The applicant stated in the cover letter with the plans: “The existing white colour of the façade uncharacteristic for the Quays would be replaced with a terracotta colour to re-establish the red-brick colour of the river front”.
The façade has instead been repainted yellow which, apart from not complying with the planning permission, is visually inappropriate to the historic location and is uncharacteristic of the Liffey Quays.
The proposed fascia lettering was to be of aluminium in a “pale colour” with caps measuring 350mm and lower case 300mm. The lettering as installed is significantly larger than this and is finished in a canary yellow colour. The large size and strong yellow colour of the signage, together with the yellow facade, create a cheap appearance ill-befitting the adjoining architectural composition of the Ha’penny Bridge and Merchants’ Hall which is one of the images of the city and is endlessly photographed by tourists.
There is a history of poor-quality presentation as a result of non-compliance with approved plans for shopfronts,signage and lighting by this operator at this address dating back to the mid-2000s.
The Centra operator clearly feels it is a calculated risk to be granted permission by Dublin City Council for one thing and then to do something different.
HUNGRY HARRY’S TEMPLE BAR
In the run-up to the opening of McDonald’s in its main square this summer, a fast food restaurant further along Temple Bar’s main strip – run by Pat McDonagh as Hungry Harry’s – brazenly rebranded itself as Supermac’s.
The restaurant erected without planning permission a new ‘traditional style’ shopfront with plastic lettering in place of the Group 91 architects’ stone-and-steel, house-style shopfront, erected in the 1990s while Temple Bar was being regenerated.
The fast-food takeaway use at Hungry Harry’s had already been refused four times over the course of two planning applications.
LOWER ORMOND QUAY
This premises, formerly the riotous Town and Country auction house, operated without planning permission for most of 2012 as a casino, with an aesthetic that was as stylish as its clientele was grubby.
In the end it was refused retention permission for a change of use from previous retail use at basement, ground and first floor to a ‘Private Members Club’, so in the last weeks it has reinvented itself as a tattoo parlour with no permission for its signage, the only illuminated plastic signage on this stretch of the quays.
TEMPLE BAR PUB, TEMPLE BAR
The frontage of this ‘traditional pub’ is a confectionery of gratuitious, under-detailed and inauthentic mediocrity. It can be seen that numerous items have been added to the exterior: neon projecting sign at high level; projecting sign above fascia on Temple Bar frontage; two projecting signs at corner above fascia; heritage style lamps at first floor level.
There is no record of planning permission for any of these items. Hanging-strip Christmas lights erected at Christmas some years ago are being left up all year round.
There are bulky uplighters, downlighters, flower-basket brackets, a multitude of lamps and projecting signs all attached to the historic brick elevation of the pub.
Addition of more signage, lighting and other clutter to the facades is not only unauthorised but entirely unnecessary for the purposes of identification of the premises and is only serving to obscure the architectural character of the building as a late-Georgian pub/shop-type premises which should be its main attraction.
In the 1990s the then owners tried to demolish the pub but were successfully appealed by An Taisce.
13 PARLIAMENT STREET (PROTECTED STRUCTURE)
In 2008, an application for take-away use additional to the existing restaurant (Little Sicily) was made. The City Council permitted it on the basis that ‘The take away use shall be clearly subsidiary to the main use as a restaurant. Reason: In order to safeguard the amenities of the area.’
The restaurant subsequently reopened as a kebab fast-food restaurant and take-away with numerous unauthorised illuminated signs and reflective black PVC fascia added to the shopfront. A complaint was lodged with the City Council’s Planning Enforcement section.
A retention application was made for this unauthorised signage in March 2009. In its decision to permit this, the Council stipulated that “within three months of this grant of planning permission [May 2010], the applicant shall remove all unauthorised signage from the shopfront and “The fascia timber shall be painted black with off-white handpainted lettering of no more than 400mm high”.
Three years after the unauthorised illuminated signage and reflective black fascia were due to be removed, none of this has been done.
6 QUEEN STREET (PROTECTED STRUCTURE)
In 2012, the vacant shop unit of a Georgian building on Queen Street with apartments upstairs sought permission for a fast food takeaway.
Following a grant of permission by the City Council, an appeal was made on the basis that the applicant was simply looking to target exiting customers of the three public houses directly adjoining and that the residential use of the building upstairs made it unsuitable for takeaway use.
Nevertheless permission was given by An Bord Pleanála.
MCDONALDS (TEMPLE BAR)
In April 2012, An Bord Pleanala rewrote the rules by permitting a McDonalds in Temple Bar Square, a designated ‘cultural quarter’.
The City Council once designated the Temple Bar area as a fast-food-free area when it benefited from tax incentive but lost its nerve a decade ago.
Now there’s always something cow-based to munch on post-Stag-swilling.