The status of ACAs in Dublin city has thus far proven to be greatly diminished by the manner of their implementation and their selective application. So far we have seen ACA designation being avoided entirely in areas where it is deemed to 'interfere' with proposed development, or the provisions of an active designation simply not being enforced, as seen right across the O'Connell Street ACA - in effect the â€˜City Centre ACAâ€™ given the extensive area that it covers, both north and south of the Liffey. Both of these practices run completely counter to the legal intention, proper planning objective, and civic spirit of the instrument, and make a mockery of the planning process.
The lack of precedent of a firm hand by the planning authority with the Carlton case resulted in such incredible proposals by the applicant as the demolition the elegant Garda station building at the upper end of the street - one of the most handsome post-destruction buildings on the thoroughfare and comprising the very essence of what austere 1920s O'Connell Street is all about. For a developer to think that a proposal which so patently runs counter to stated policy has a chance of getting passed, there must be something seriously wrong with the authorityâ€™s standards of policy implementation. Likewise, the precedent for whacking a whole section of 1910s terrace on Henry Street was neatly set by Dunnesâ€™ new mega-store further down the road. In any sane city, where a planning authority sets the standards, not developers, these proposals would never be made, let alone get a look-in, never mind be granted with flying colours as in the case of Henry Street.
There are two other ABP precedents for refusal in this area. The previously mentioned Dunnes scheme, which isnâ€™t even in the ACA, was rejected by the Board's inspector on the basis of its destructive and invasive character. The only reason it got through is that the single objector to the scheme mysteriously withdrew their objection to ABP. The whole case collapsed, and thus so too did the gracious character of one of the cityâ€™s best commercial terraces. Secondly, in a recent move that received no publicity whatsoever, the Board resoundingly rejected the proposed re-facading of Penneys next door to the GPO, submitted as part of the Arnotts redevelopment. Sailing through the DCC process with its vulgar projecting canopies, hanging â€˜veilsâ€™, vast television screen glazing, myriad top-up storeys and brazen vertical signage, all directly next door to the GPO, the Board described it as not only inappropriate, but contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area. Even on this, one of the most sensitive sites in the city, in an ACA, sitting beside one of the most significant buildings in the State, where design excellence is demanded, there was a willingness by the city authority to whore out Oâ€™Connell Streetâ€™s stated â€˜civic design characterâ€™ for a tawdry trinket of commercial trash, so incongruous as to make the current building appear the model of elegant restraint. The applicants even had the audacity to cite the wedding cake of the former Metropole Hotel as precedent for an arrogant architectural expression on the site.
Meanwhile, the view of the Wide Streets Commission terrace on Dâ€™Olier Street from across the river is, as we speak, being grossly undermined by a nasty overly-tall development looming over its roofscape, its two missing original shopfronts are not reinstated even though it was recommended in a DCC document on shopfront design for the area, and all surrounding streets in the ACA drown in a sea of unauthorised development. The recent over-scaled Gresham Hotel redevelopment also had nearly four metres, or over a storey, lopped of its height by ABP to protect the rooflines of the ACA.
Over in the new Capel Street ACA, a similar sea of unauthorised development and dubious changes of use are taking place on a weekly basis, with the entire upper end already commandeered by Chinese restaurants, parlours and goodness knows what else. The uses within an ACA are just as important as the buildings, yet if the current pace of change on Capel Street is to be sustained, within a matter of three to four years this traditional shopping street will be unrecognisable. Even Grafton Street is worse now in terms of illegal signage, displays, postering and windows that it was when its ACA was introduced two years ago.
Aside from the fact that most of the provisions of an ACA merely promote good planning practice which should be standard across the board in an historic city centre, there remains a swath of streets still requiring designation. This includes Parliament Street, Dame Street, Lord Edward Street, College Green, Nassau Street, Dawson Street, Molesworth Street, Kildare Street, arguably St. Stephenâ€™s Green, South William Street, the â€˜red quarterâ€™ of South Great Georgeâ€™s Street, Aungier Street and others. There is an extreme reluctance on the part of DCC to adopt ACAs because of the perceived drain on resources they effect. But if good planning standards existed in the first place, and swift procedures were implemented to streamline the system, this issue would not arise.
ACA as an instrument is by and large sound. It is the implementation of it by authorities that is the issue, and it is up to them to take the matter in hand, show commitment to understanding the legislation, making known stakeholders' obligations, and deal with it. It has been around for close to a decade now â€“ there are no excuses anymore.
And alas, whatever about the problems in Dublin, ACAs outside the big smoke are truly in a different league...