Re: Re: The Irish Town – Dying At The Crossroads?

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The major thing that strikes from the photo you have posted above, is that it could be a photograph any of us might take on a holiday, or en route to someplace in Europe. There is nothing outstanding about it, by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t try very hard like some of the modern stuff has to do. What is shown in the photo above, is light years better than the average Irish town or village. I have often heard from colleagues of mine, that Sean O’ Laoire has a long time hatred for the automobile and its impact on urban living. But I have to remember that guys like Sean and others have travelled the world so much more than I have. I often get quips from colleagues of mine, prompting me to go here, persuading me to go somewhere else. Its fabulous, its awesome . . . a wonderful place to learn about urban design.

I would like to add some words of caution about urban regeneration . . .

I haven’t read David McWilliams or George Lee so much, but I am getting to that stage now. It is like talking about the eighty pound guerilla in the corner of the room. The bad relationship that formed in Ireland during the Celtic tiger years between the Irish property developer and the idea of urban regeneration. This is why I liked to read and listen to what Feasta had to say about things. Since my knowledge of how development finance works in the real world, was very patchy to say the least.

When I do go someplace I tend to look at building technology, building materials and methods of construction. In later times, I have also began to study how A/E’s have approach energy conservation in other parts of the world. Some time last year I started to read about supply chain management. If I wasn’t so focussed on business administration and techniques of managing construction I might have a good eye, as an urban designer. I am interested in construction management because I believe the customer deserves better – always, no matter how hard you try, there is a better way. Hence, why I am so attracted to the Japanese car industry and its philosophy. I think that we can drive costs down and quality up at the same time in Ireland. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could start with the big vision and follow through the execution. That problem interests me a lot.

Adamstown strategic development zone tried to use the right approach towards execution. That is, to get the sequence correct on what was a new site. I haven’t fully figured out what happened down in Dublin Docklands. What I do know, is that many of Ireland’s developers went down there to make a fortune. But many of them ended up losing a fortune instead. Is there something we could have done to prevent this? One has to remember, when the property developer loses out, the whole economy seems to cave in on itself too. This is a bad side affect, that not many urban planners or architects will claim credit for. But they are ultimately involved in the process too. Nobody has a squeaky clean image after the last decade here in Ireland.

That is why I pointed to the example of Sean Dunne and the Newbridge shopping centre. People talk now about the fact he lost his shirt in Ballsbridge. But what people don’t want to remember, is the fact that he almost lost his shirt in the small town of Newbridge aswell. You need to form partnerships in order to do the ‘big vision’ and it doesn’t always work out. The end result in Newbridge is wonderful today. But it was purchased at too high a risk, not only to an individual developer, but to our fragile economy in Ireland. It was the multiplication of so much risk across so many projects here in Ireland at the same time, which drove us under in the end.

There is nothing mind blowing and extraordinary about the high density Spencer Dock scheme. But it benefitted from having the vision set out early on. That would improve the risk ratio, if I can make up such a phrase. I don’t even know who was responsible for the original vision. Somehow it managed to carry itself forward on its own momentum. On other sites though, where the vision was still under development, or being made up as things went along, that is where the pockets of a lot of wealthy people were broke. Indecision seems to be a huge enemy where these large scale things are concerned. That is why developers often choose a scheme that appears to be within the capabilities of the construction firms they are tendering to. It is not that developers do not have aesthetic ambitions as such. It is the fact that the technical capabilities, and often the ability to manage finances of the Irish building contractor is limited.

I know that many architects in Ireland have already prepared comprehensive visionary plans for towns in Ireland. But we have to be more sensible in the future in how we finance and manage the construction roll out. The episode at North Wall Quay certainly convinced me of this. We are now stuck in a situation, where if the scheme at North Wall Quay isn’t built a major player in the property market will go under. Carrying a big chunk of the productive Irish economy with him in the process. But there doesn’t appear to be anyone sitting in our parliment in Kildare Street who is able to deal with these individuals. Maybe DeValera would have rounded them all up and locked them in boot camp in Kildare. I don’t know, but he certainly had more steel about him than Bertie.

I mean, the Dublin Docklands should be more developed, and more comprehensively developed by now in my opinion. Given the fact that so much credit was available to fund the works. Given the vast amount of effort that went into it over a decade or more. Given the vast amount of private developer debt that has been created, that is crippling the economy now, in order to roll out the docklands building works program. I wonder why it doesn’t seem more finished. There was no requisite public investment in a works program to complete streets and public squares to function along with the new building projects. I think the DDDA saw that quite early, but the capital hasn’t moved fast enough and construction has not finished quickly enough on the infrastructure to tie it all together.

There is a strong argument to be made, that the debt created to enable property developers to function, was bought at too expensive a price on the open money markets. This above all, is what has brought extreme dis-favour on urban regeneration as a concept. The idea of urban regeneration should have a good image. But in Ireland, the image has suffered massive damage. It might take a decade for us to be re-build that image now. Even then, I am not so certain. In the meantime architects will sit around holding their pencils and hoping.

The fact the Dublin Docklands seems unfinished and so un-resolved, is one of the things holding it back as a place. It sickens my rear end to sit around and watch as ‘high net worth’ individuals fiddle around and try to get their P’s and Q’s in order. So that we can all resume some sort of economic normality. In the UK a land area the size of Dublin Docklands would have been distributed out amongst a much larger group of developers. You can easily see why. At least then, somethings might have gotten finished properly.

If we had taken a smaller portion of available land in the Docklands and finished it to a much higher standard, would we be better off now? This is basically the point that Paul Keogh was making about certain Irish towns. Towns which had a population of only 3,000 people. But which had enough land zoned for a population of 60,000 using current EU recommended densities of 60 people per hectare at sustainable densities. One developer I know who has his finger on the pulse, commented a while back: A lot of Irish towns and villages around the country have doubled in size in terms of building stock, but their population has remained the same!

Frank McDonald made a useful observation in one RTE interview about Poolbeg. It makes no sense to go tearing off down to Poolbeg penninsula, when so much of the remaining docklands area remains under-developed. The major commercial tenants already have cold feet about moving their operations to the docklands. They are turning their focus back to look at traditional areas of the city instead. The window of opportunity to turn the docklands into something worthwhile has been missed now. Folks go down to the docklands area and still think to themselves, this place is a mess. No amount of photo montage or cheap publicity stunts can hide that fact.

As someone mentioned above, the importance of transportation. One wonders if much of the development in the Docklands should have gone ahead, before the transportation issues were fully sorted out. As much and all of the effort that went into building Mayor Square, I am still not convinced that it works. I have no idea what way Spencer Dock can connect to its surroundings if at all. That project to provide a walk along the old canal side, is badly in need of completion. But then, there are so many streets, new squares, plazas and spaces in the docklands area that have been problematic to deliver. Lack of resources I should imagine. This is why land taxation could be so useful where the docklands are concerned.

Brian O’ Hanlon

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