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Taking Liberties

An Bord Pleanála is anachronistically heedless to the heritage of Dublin’s most famous and vibrant working-class suburb

by Kevin Duff

THE LIBERTIES area is a special part of Dublin with a rich social and architectural history dating to the twelfth century when the area preserved its own jurisdiction, though it was otherwise part of the city. Considered to maintain an authentic sense of historic and working-class Dublin to a greater extent than other parts of the city, the feeling is that great care needs to be taken in its development so as not to erase or further diminish these particular qualities.

Following years of underinvestment, the area has seen an explosion of construction activity in the last few years. While on the one hand repair of the area’s fabric is welcome, there is significant disquiet over the avalanche of new hotels, aparthotels and – in particular – student accommodation constructed in the past five years, and the parallel absence of construction and delivery of much-needed affordable housing in the area for locals or those who wish to live in the area.

As has happened in other parts of the city, the smaller artisan houses and terraces of the area have been attractive to young professionals for decades, pushing prices up and contributing to unaffordability.

Successful new additions to the area include the Hyatt Centric hotel on the Coombe, and the Maldron hotel, Upper Kevin Street, both of which are well-mannered and reinstate historic streetscapes in the vicinity of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The redevelopment, currently underway, of the Tivoli Theatre and adjoining carpark, on Francis Street, will provide a mixed-use scheme to include a cultural and performance space.

There are plans to regenerate a 12-acre site at the world-famous Guinness Brewery as a new mixed commercial and residential district. At Newmarket, where the market was closed and the Teeling Distillery opened the restoration of the early-eighteenth-century house at No. 10 Mill Street as part of an adjacent new development provided a public gain in the rehabilitation of an historic building that had fallen into dereliction over two decades in Eircom’s ownership and redevelopment of the square itself at Newmarket has commenced.

The main streets of the Liberties are medieval in origin and the area is richly endowed with architecturally outstanding buildings, including Saint Catherine’s church, the Guinness Storehouse, John’s Lane church, the former Fire Station, Thomas Street (now part of NCAD) and the Iveagh Market, Francis Street. Built in a neo-Palladian style in 1907, the regeneration of the latter is long-awaited and much concern has been expressed over the unnecessary deterioration of its fabric through a gross lack of maintenance.

Owned by Dublin City Council and leased to Temple Bar publican Martin Keane, a sensitive redevelopment proposal for the complex was expected to include retention and rehabilitation of the adjacent nineteenth-century brick buildings of the former Mother Redcap’s pub and Winstanley factory on Back Lane close to An Taisce’s headquarters where the tailors had their hall. Unfortunately a recent application provides for an eight-storey lump with facade retention only.

As well as its well known historic architectural landmarks, the Liberties, as a former industrial quarter, has an abundance of smaller-scaled buildings of interest – mills, pubs, malthouses and stores. However, poor planning decisions are routinely being made by the State appeals board, An Bord Pleanála, resulting in needless destruction of this vital understated component of the area’s built heritage.

Successful new additions to the area include the Hyatt Centric hotel on the Coombe, and the Maldron hotel, Upper Kevin Street, both of which are well-mannered and reinstate historic streetscapes in the vicinity of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

A recent case concerned an unlisted stone industrial building on Warrenmount Lane, off Mill Street, formerly part of a malthouse complex adjacent to the River Poddle. The building had sat for some years within a development site known as ‘the Tenters Site’ and had been identified by the conservation architects Shaffrey Associates as being of value and interest and worthy of repair and retention within the new development. An example of ‘urban vernacular’ architecture, it was envisaged that the building would form a marker or ‘gatepost’ at the western entrance to the new development.

The building (or a previous building on the same footprint) is seen on the 1756 John Rocque map of Dublin, forming part of a stepped street-line leading towards the early-eighteenth-century mansion Warrenmount House (illustrated, bottom right), a Protected Structure, which was later converted to a convent.

The Tenters Site had been the subject of numerous planning applications for development stretching back to 2005, all of them providing for retention and integration of the stone industrial building within the new scheme. Building work finally got underway in 2016 and was largely complete when, out of the blue in March 2017, an application was made by the developer, BAM Property Ltd (of Children’s Hospital fame), to demolish the historic stone building. Demolition would extend to part of the adjacent, roofless, cement-rendered building, also visible on the Rocque map and forming part of the boundary wall with Warrenmount House. Objections were lodged by An Taisce and a local resident, citing the heritage value of the existing building and the planning precedents for its retention, but permission was nevertheless given by Dublin City Council.

As a vital ‘safety valve’ within the system, An Bord Pleanála could generally be relied upon in case like this where built heritage was endangered, and so an appeal against the City Council’s decision was lodged by An Taisce with the aim of saving the building.

The appeal arguments were straightforward:

  • The building was characteristic of the Liberties and an example of historic stone construction and craftsmanship
  • It provided a valuable link to and reminder of the area’s rich industrial past, and its retention would add value to the new development
  • Its footprint was evident on maps going back to the mid-18th century
  • It formed part of the historic laneway approach to and setting of the early-Georgian mansion Warrenmount House, and so its removal would negatively impact on the Protected Structure setting
  • The applicant had constructed a large, new high-density development on the site and the retaining and repair of the existing building was considered reasonable in this light
  • Retention where appropriate of historic buildings of interest within development sites was an established and accepted part of regeneration of the city
  • The Liberties had lost a huge level of buildings over the years and it was especially important that remaining historic fabric be preserved where possible
  • Demolition was contrary to the provisions of the Dublin City Development Plan which encouraged the preservation of the built heritage

It was now down to An Bord Pleanála to simply dismiss this eleventh-hour, about-turn application to demolish a heritage building which had effectively been already incorporated within the new development. Remarkably though, in the face of the robust case made for refusal, permission to demolish was given.

The central justification presented in the An Bord Pleanála Inspector’s Report was that – as maintained by the applicant – the building was decayed and in poor condition. As with any structure left vacant for a number of years, the building bore a superficially unkempt and neglected appearance with vegetation growth but was, in fact, fully roofed and in reasonable
basic condition. An underpinning characteristic of historic masonry structures is their full reparability, even when in a much more advanced state of decay than was the subject building.

Yet, because the Bord’s decision is final, there was no opportunity to come back on this flimsy and easily refuted justification.

And so the building was demolished and cleared away, and with it all trace of the stepped streetline surviving from the 1756 Rocque map, a shocking indictment of the failure of the planning system at appeal level to protect fragile heritage and one of the most needless grants of permission ever issued by An Bord Pleanála.

A second example concerned a nearby vacant former public house at No 32 Newmarket, at the corner with Brabazon Place, part of a block mainly occupied by a 1980s redbrick IDA office and enterprise scheme. In 2017 plans were lodged for a large-scale, new, mixed-use redevelopment of the block requiring complete demolition and site clearance, including the
corner pub, once known as the Red Lion.

Several objections to the plans were lodged to Dublin City Council by local traders and residents, citing issues such as the need for an increased residential, community, artist and market space component within the proposed development, and the lack of empathy of the new buildings with the historical character of the area, with An Taisce raising concern about demolition of the vacant three-storey corner pub.

Although currently degraded to anonymity with modern roof and blocked windows, 1970s photographs of the premises showed a characteristic traditional Dublin corner pub, with sash windows, pitched roof and chimneys. Unlisted but sitting within a designated Conservation Area, it was suggested that its features and character could be restored and upgraded as part of the new development alongside.

Though the building had a nineteenth-century appearance, its square-shaped corner plot could be traced on the Rocque map of 1756, and so it may contain fabric or origins from this time, or earlier. In response to these expressed concerns, the City Council requested Further Information requiring, among other things, a “full archaeological survey” of the building
with the intent of determining its history and origins. The submitted survey, however, was inconclusive and the City Council proceeded to grant permission for the overall development, including demolition of
the former pub building.

Again, An Taisce took an appeal to An Bord Pleanála to make the case for preservation of the historic building within the new scheme. Arguments put forward included:

  • The sustainability of re-use of an existing building as opposed to demolition;
  • Its potential for repair and restoration of architectural character;
  • Its location within a Conservation Area, where there is a predisposition towards retention of historic fabric;
  • While not remarkable architecturally, its status as the last building of its type standing on Newmarket provided an important reference point for the historical development and evolution of the square its retention was desirable because of the effect of traditional plot sizes in breaking down the effects of modern, large-scale development;
  • Regardless of its age, its significant value and rarity as a piece of historic fabric standing in the centre of the seventeenth-century market square;
  • Together with the adjacent limestone warehouse on the opposite corner of Brabazon Place, its epitome of two historic building types characteristic to the area (industrial and commercial with accommodation over)
  • That traditional buildings add value and interest to new development;
  • That the Dublin City Development Plan and the Liberties Local Area Plan encourage identification and preservation of the area’s built heritage

In addition to preservation of No 32 Newmarket, the An Taisce appeal sought the reinstatement of the plan-form of Brabazon Place, an interesting smaller square off the main long rectangular square of Newmarket (similar to the Haymarket, off Smithfield) and part of the Conservation Area. The development as proposed would all but eliminate this historic urban space, which is recorded in old photographs and maps. It was suggested that reinstatement of its L-shaped boundary could readily be achieved by making minor adjustments to the footprint of the new development.

As part of its response submission to the appeal, the developer included revised drawings and CGI images showing how the proposed development could be amended to retain the historic former public house within the new
scheme, should An Bord Pleanála be favourable to the appeal argument. The efforts to save the building, it appeared, had been successful and a decision requiring its retention was now a formality. Astonishingly though, An Bord Pleanála’s July 2018 decision permitted the scheme in its original form, allowing for demolition of No. 32 Newmarket and making no arrangement for reinstatement of Brabazon Place, despite the Conservation Areas covering both. An Bord Pleanála is not providing a democratic service at present. It has permitted a large number of major development schemes
for Dublin City, often in the face of robust and reasoned cases as to why a scheme needs to be modified or refused, and sometimes overturning the local authority’s decision to refuse permission. This is an extraordinary situation.

The nature of development proposals lodged for planning is speculative; modifications along the way are part and parcel of the process and must be expected, as indeed is refusal of permission. But this is not happening, and the character of the city is suffering. When scarce resources of heritage interest are at stake, as with these examples in the Liberties, there is an extra layer of abhorrence, as losses are permanent and irreversible.

Locals are mobilising and there are the beginnings of organised dissent from this anachronistic heedlessness of the Liberties’ fragile character and heritage.