Re: Re: DDDA / Docklands Miscellany

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From the Irish Times today

Time for DDDA to be put out of its zombie-like misery

The key question about the Dublin Docklands Development Authority is whether it has any use or purpose now, writes FRANK MCDONALD

IT IS no accident that the longest stretch of the Liffey Quays is named after James Butler, the great Duke of Ormonde. He had spent the Cromwellian years in exile with King Charles II in Paris and was so impressed by quays on the Seine that, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland after the Restoration in 1660, he ordained that Dublin’s relationship with its river should be similarly reordered.

The Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) and its top people either didn’t know or care about this essential historical fact, or its implied imperative that the line of the Liffey quays simply had to be retained. With supreme arrogance, they devised an “Occupy the River” project in collaboration with Dutch architects, involving the creation of an island between Spencer Dock and The Point.

First presented as a concept to the DDDA’s board in November 2005, it was fleshed out a year later by director of architecture John McLaughlin and West 8 Architects from Rotterdam as “Liffey Island: a new canal would define the northern, eastern and western edges with high-density, high-rise buildings, including skewed towers pushing out into the Liffey”, as Declan Brassil Co’s planning report notes.

The Dutch know all about making land; they’ve been doing it for centuries. But the most apt role model for what the DDDA had in mind was surely Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Makhtoum, the ruler of Dubai, with his artificial islands in the Arabian Gulf. The object of the exercise, both there and here, was to manufacture real estate – in Dublin’s case, by creating a “mini-Manhattan” rising up from the river.

It was in pursuit of this audacious idea that the DDDA made an agreement with Liam Carroll, after he acquired the Brooks Thomas site on North Wall Quay. Under this dubious deal, he agreed to cede to the authority, free of charge, some of the land it needed as a springboard for “occupying the river” in return for its green light for an office development that contravened its own North Lotts Planning Scheme.

It is deeply ironic and coincidental that this was to be the future headquarters of Anglo Irish Bank, given that its chairman, Seán FitzPatrick, was a member of the DDDA’s board and Lar Bradshaw, the DDDA’s chairman, was a non-executive director of Anglo. And the bank was providing a loan of €293 million for the acquisition of the Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend by a consortium that included the DDDA.

By then, of course, the DDDA had lost the run of itself entirely. It didn’t need to own a quarter of the Ringsend site (valued at “Nil” in its most recent accounts) since it would ultimately be exercising its planning powers to determine what was built there. But there was an atavistic determination to revert to old Custom House Docks site scenario under which the authority held actual ownership, rather than mere control.

It was the inherent conflict between its dual role as a development agency and planning authority that led to the DDDA coming a cropper. In the North Lotts case, as the Brassil report points out, other property owners there were “entitled to rely on the fact that any development undertaken would be consistent with” the statutory planning scheme, in the interests of “transparency, fairness and equity”.

When one of them, Seán Dunne, sought a judicial review of the deal it had done with Liam Carroll, the game was up. Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan, in her October 2008 judgment, upheld Dunne’s complaint of bias on the DDDA’s part and quashed its decision to approve Carroll’s office development for Anglo Irish Bank on the basis that it did not comply with the terms of the North Lotts Planning Scheme.

Paul Maloney, the DDDA’s former chief executive, is now being portrayed as having been engaged in a series of “solo runs”. But whatever about details being withheld from the board, the minutes show that its members – including Mary Moylan, assistant secretary in the Department of the Environment – were not only aware of but gave their approval to the fateful decisions that led to the present debacle.

However, as the Brassil report says, “there has been a ‘light touch’ approach by the Department both in relation to its wider sponsorship of the authority and its planning responsibilities”. The DDDA was perceived as a “success”; after all, it had the “considerable achievement” of having engineered the “dramatic transformation” of Dublin’s Docklands, so why rock the bureaucratic boat?

The direct result of all these shenanigans is that the DDDA is in a “fragile position”, as its new chairwoman, Prof Niamh Brennan, has conceded. Although the loans associated with the Irish Glass Bottle site transaction have now been reversed into Nama, the authority must pay interest (€5 million a year) to Anglo and is “incapable of operating on a break-even basis with this annual liability”.

But really, the financial issue is a red herring that should not distract attention from the more fundamental question about whether the DDDA has any purpose or utility at this stage. Most of its top people are now gone, staff numbers have been slashed by more than half over the past year and, whereas Prof Brennan is unimpeachable, the organisation over which she presides has entered a zombie-like state.

It can no longer do anything – good, bad or indifferent – and should be put out of its misery as quickly as possible, leaving Dublin City Council to assume planning powers over the Docklands area.

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That’s all grand and all, but with the honourable exception of Cagey, Rusty Cogs and an assortment of other archiseek oddballs, why was nobody else saying this at the time?

The minute we first set eyes on this ”Liffey Island” / ”new canal” scheme it was clear as day that someone in the DDDA had lost the run of themselves, but yet it didn’t seem to set off any alarm bells in any of the usual places.

I know there was an air of unreality about the latter days of the Tiger era, but you’d still have expected that someone in the higher echelons of the civic body [and with a salary to match] might have raised their hand to ask a question.

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