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Eoghan Murphy’s crude and desperate guidelines on Building Heights risk the aesthetic of our towns and cities

By Michael Smith


Density is desirable

We should all be able to agree the desirability of densification of the Dublin City area – in accordance with the principles of sustainable development. The advantages of density include being able to justify significant
infrastructural, including public transportation but also for example parks, expenditure, which promotes the maximisation of quality of life.


Density and high-rise

However, in low-rise cities overshadowing, the need for ground-level plazas and the expense and difficulty of building high (lifts, fire safety, design to avoid windtunnelling and overshadowing), particularly in low-rise environments, militate against high-rise producing high densities or affordable housing, legitimate current policy imperatives. Indeed, with the exception of the world’s megalopolises high–rise, in general, serves the developer, not the public interest.


Irish cities are not like New York!

It is perfectly sensible to like New York and to be mostly happy when it goes higher still while recognising that Dublin City Centre (and other Irish towns and cities) a different unique selling point. When we think of Dublin, when tourists spend two days in Dublin, it is the low-rise historic character that IS the city. A Dublin that people overall like. It is fragile because a few twenty-storey buildings in the wrong place could change it forever. A policy of six-storey buildings on three-storey streets could change it forever.This is precisely what the lumbering time-serving of the Department of Housing and their uncertain Minister have delivered as their salvo at posterity.


What high-rise might involve

There is no reason to think the sorts of applications that were closed down as ridiculous over the last 25 years would not resurface under these draft guidelines. Irish planning does not have the discipline to provide for discreet areas of high-rise that to not subvert its heritage. I recall for example applications for permission for a 16-storey development on the north side of Thomas Street, a 13-storey apartment block at the Tivoli Theatre on Francis St, a 12-storey residential scheme at School Street and a 13-storey building at Bridgefoot Street. There was a permission for a 16-storey tower for an Arnotts redevelopment plan, an 11-storey development on Chancery St, a 13-storey development on Merrion Road, and the approved demolition of most of the Clarence Hotel in favour of an oversailing cybership. I remember a Liberty-Hallheight sky-borne ski-slope structure over the Carlton site on O’Connell St. I remember when Treasury holdings wanted a 35 storey hotel to the rear of the Convention Centre and an application by Manor Park Homes for a 51-storey building on Thomas St in Dublin’s Liberties as well as Sean Dunne’s proposal in Ballsbridge for a 37-storey, 132-metre high residential tower that would of course have been “cut like a diamond”. Recently we had Johnny Ronan’s application for 22 storeys on Tara St, likened to a skybound fridge.


Rhetoric differs from reality

Inevitably these applications are dressed up in property-supplement-speak as “crystalline”, ‘sculptural”, “breathtaking” and as heralding Ireland’s arrival in the exciting big-time. The reality – as we know from O’Connell Bridge House, Liberty Hall, Georges Quay etc as well as from much of England is that there can be few urban aesthetics as depressing and lumpen as an incoherent skyline.


Do it properly: scientifically assess carrying capacity

In parts of low-rise historic cities there may indeed be a carrying capacity for high-rise. This needs to be methodically ascertained, using balloons and other geo-architectural techniques. It is extraordinary that the draft guidelines and accompanying Strategic Environmental Assessment provide for no such scientific exercise. I reserve my right to challenge the largely generic SEA which pays inadequate attention to material assets and the cultural especially architectural heritage; and for this reason is unlawful. Where, following assessment of local carrying capacity, high-rise development can be squeezed in in low-rise historic cities it is a good thing.


The model

There are possible paradigms: all buildings, meaning buildings significantly higher than neighbourhood or surrounding buildings, may be considered only following adoption of Local Area Plans which should specifically provide for preservation in full of existing positive local and civic character; and should be prepared only after the fullest consultation and engagement with the public including local residents, public sector agencies, non governmental agencies, local community groups and commercial and business interests within the area. If possible, local community groups should be afforded reasonable costs for the making of submissions on Local Area Plans. This mechanism would provide for the proper assessment and consultation that must precede any significant change in the ethos of those parts of the city that may actually benefit (I believe there are some) from high-rise. We cannot tell in Dublin but it is to be expected that it would include most of Docklands, maybe Heuston, maybe around Connolly, probably in much of suburbia, particularly where architectural banality could benefit from counterpointing. Why not consider judicious place-affirming high-rise on the Long Mile Road, or in Dean’s Grange or Adamstown?

The guidelines disdain character and locality. The draft guidelines criticise local authorities for “setting generic maximum height limits across their functional areas”, mainly in response to “local-level concerns like maintaining the character of an existing built-up area”, even though this could “undermine wider national policy objectives”. But surely these local concerns are legitimate? Anyone concerned with democracy or urban planning would. Because as described above this particular concern for character is entirely consistent with national policy objectives, including the demi-god, densification.


The guidelines are wrong about city-centre density

Though it seems to have escaped the unimaginative but now policy-desperate Department of the Environment, recent studies confirm that densities within Inner City Dublin are high. Eurostat’s 2016 publication ‘Urban Europe – statistics on cities, towns and suburbs’ highlights the number of inhabitants per square kilometre. in the three highest density electoral areas in each EU country. The highest densities in Ireland are in Inner City Dublin, being: Rotunda A (19,509 people per, Mountjoy A (18,091 people per and Merchant’s Quay B (16,566 people per These compare well to the highest densities in the other 27 European Union countries and are exceeded only by electoral areas in Paris, the City of Westminster and some built-up areas in Spain and Belgium.

It will be noted that when the population-density figures quoted above for the three highest-density areas of Inner City Dublin are averaged (18,055 people per square kilometre) they approximate to the most recent average figure for the Department in Paris of 21,616 people per square kilometre within the city limits (the NUTS-3 statistical area), ahead of Inner London West, which had 10,374 persons per square kilometre. The guidelines fail to register that much of inner city Dublin is already close to optimal, maximal densities.

Dublin City has already provided for high-rise. The draft guidelines provide that “It is critically important that development plans identify and provide policy support for specific geographic locations or precincts where increased building height is not only desirable but a fundamental policy requirement”.

Yet the Dublin City Development Plan did exactly that by designating the areas around Heuston, Connolly and Tara Street rail stations as well as Docklands for high-rise (above 50 metres), a further nine areas for “mid-rise” and a ceiling of up to 28 metres for the rest of the inner city. The guidelines are ungrounded in necessary specifics.

Now the Housing Department draft guidelines seek to declare an open season for tall buildings pretty well everywhere, whatever about their impact on views of setpiece historic buildings and on typical streetscapes. Protected structures are not mentioned at all in the draft guidelines.

Extraordinarily, neither the guidelines nor the Strategic Environmental Assessment look at the specifics of the skylines of Dublin and other cities and towns to ascertain what changes are possible, attractive or, most importantly, umdesirable. This reeks of desperation and opportunism – to the detriment to sustainable policy-making. Simply put this is evidence-free, place-unaware policy-making.

Developers are taking the opportunity to conflate the two issues of a housing crisis and lack of commercial office space to push for increased building heights in the Dublin City Development Plan to maximise profit. They happily perpetuate the myth that planning is holding up the supply of housing, most particularly through the restriction
on building heights. A fragile Dublin city is emerging from a devastating recession vulnerable to destructive development fuelled by foreign commercial investment. The intangible international appeal that Dublin holds as a historic centre which attracts many investors in the first place is precisely what is threatened by ill-placed, greedy insertions dominating the terrace, streetscape and skyline.

According to Section of the Dublin City Development Plan 2016-2011, ‘Approach to Taller Buildings’: “Dublin City Council acknowledges the intrinsic quality of Dublin as a low-rise city and considers that it should remain predominantly so. The vast majority of the city area is identified as not being suitable for mid-rise or taller buildings. Accordingly, the spatial approach to taller buildings in the city is in essence to protect the vast majority of the city as a low-rise city, including established residential areas and conservation areas within the historic cores”. Loose language and confusion (which admittedly pervade the current development plan) is leapt on by developers to promote a laissez-faire approach. And in any event the cynics know well that the city council isoften happy to breach its own development plan e.g. in the case of the development on the site of the former Carlton Cinema on O’Connell St or the Clarence Hotel.

The draft guidelines fail to acknowledge that the 2016 Dublin City Development Plan already provides for mid-rise buildings throughout Inner City Dublin. Although ‘low-rise’ in Europe generally means 15m, Dublin City Council astonishingly redefined it to mean up to 28m throughout Inner City Dublin for commercial development or up to 24m (8 residential storeys) for residential development. The eight-storey height is also considered ‘low’ within 500m of any existing or proposed DART, LUAS, mainline, Metro or DART Underground station throughout the Dublin City Council area. In the Outer City (beyond the canals) up to 16m (5 residential storeys) is categorised as ‘low’. 10 large areas of the city have also been approved for buildings up to 50m (16 residential storeys) and a further four areas for buildings with no height restriction. Section.1.10 of the Guidelines could be interpreted to be imposing similar heights on every city and major town in the country.

At Sec.1.10 the draft guidelines refer to a minimum of six storeys in city and town centre areas including Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Galway, within the canal ring in Dublin and in other major towns: “In such areas, it would be appropriate to support the consideration of building heights of at least 6 storeys at street level as the default objective, subject to keeping open the scope to consider even greater building heights by the application of the
objectives and criteria laid out in Sections 2 and 3 of these guidelines…”.

A six-storey height is likely to be around twice the prevailing height on most streets in most cities and major towns in the country. That this height is being imposed as the default objective has the potential to destroy the architectural integrity of all our cities and major towns. It is especially boorish that Section 3.2 specifies that inreased heights will also be considered within architecturally sensitive areas: “Development proposals incorporating increased building height, including proposals within architecturally sensitive areas, should successfully integrate into/enhance the character and public realm of the area…”. It is clear therefore that the guidelines have little merit and have been badly though through by a Department not fit to carry the burden of defending Ireland’s urban aesthetic.


Legal issues: Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)

Article 3(5) SEA of the Directive requires that account be taken of the criteria set out in Annex 1 of the Directive:
(a) an outline of the contents, main objectives of the plan or programme and relationship with other relevant plans and programmes;
(b) the relevant aspects of the current state of the environment and the likely evolution thereof without implementation of the plan or programme;
(c) the environmental characteristics of areas likely to be significantly affected;
(d) any existing environmental problems which are relevant to the plan or programme;
(e) the environmental protection objectives, established at international, Community or Member State level, which are relevant to the plan or programme;
(f) the likely significant effects on the environment, including on issues such as biodiversity, population, human health, fauna, flora, soil, water, air, climatic factors, material assets, cultural heritage including architectural and archaeological heritage, landscape and the interrelationship between the above factors;
(g) the measures envisaged to prevent, reduce and as fully as possible offset any significant adverse effects on the environment of implementing the plan or programme;
(h) an outline of the reasons for selecting the alternatives dealt with, and a description of how the assessment was
(i) a description of the measures envisaged concerning monitoring in accordance with Article 10;
(j) a non-technical summary of the information provided under the above headings.
(1) These effects should include secondary, cumulative, synergistic, short, medium and long-term permanent and temporary, positive and negative effects.

It is notable that the SEA flouts the substantive requirement in subsection (f) to consider material assets, cultural heritage including architectural and archaeological heritage. This renders the assessment woolly, unrealistic and ultimately unlawful, though it is notoriously difficult to get an SEA struck down in the courts for reasons of deficient content as opposed to deficient prodedure.

EU Commission Guidance from 2001 on SEA emphasises that information provided should be “complete and reliable” and “adequate for the purposes of the Directive”.

In this context it is notable that it is not possible to assess the impact on architectural heritage since no assessment is made of it, indeed no information provided on it, even as “proposals within architecturally sensitive areas” are encouraged. This is a fundamental failure of the SEA, rendering the process unlawful.

Article 5 (1) of the Directive provides for the consideration of “reasonable alternatives”. No such assessment is provided. This again renders the process unlawful.

The SEA for the draft guidelines is what is known colloquially as a “cut and paste” job. The likely visual implications are not described or assessed. Over emphasis is laid on EPA reports: for example in the sectionon “Relevant Aspects of the Current State of the Environment (Baseline)” when the EPA is not best placed to assess the built environment or material assets, and architectural and archaeological heritage. Reference is made to landscape when it is clear that it is cityscape that should be described and assessed. This means the significance of protected structures and architectural conservation areas is ignored. No reference is made to the key government policy guidelines, ‘Architectural Heritage Protection Guidelines for Planning Authorities’; and no attempt is made to integrate those guidelines with the draft guidelines for purposes of assessment.

Section 5.2.7 of the SEA which purports to consider the cultural heritage fails to consider the impact of increased building height on the character and coherence of historic urban areas.

Draft guidelines which denigrate an urban aesthetic built up over a millennium in Ireland are driven by no strategic reason but a misdirected spurious opportunism; and are unlawful because the accompanying SEA dramatically underassesses their impact on the built environment, particularly on the architectural heritage.