Board-approved scheme slammed by senior inspector

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    • #707455
      Paul Clerkin

      Board-approved scheme slammed by senior inspector

      An Bord Pleanála approved the Eircom scheme near Heuston Station despite a scathing assessment by one of its senior inspectors, reports Frank McDonald, Environment Editor

      The successful firm of architects headed by Tony Reddy, president of the RIAI, suffered a setback last month when An Bord Pleanála decided to omit a 12-storey tower from its scheme for a key site between Heuston Station and the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham.

      Anthony Reddy and Associates (ARA) sought permission on behalf of Eircom for a mixed-use development with a floor area of 98,389 sq m (1.06 million sq ft), including 48,531 sq m (522,383 sq ft) of offices, 267 apartments, a hotel and conference centre, a museum/art gallery and a number of retail units.

      A total of 18 buildings were proposed, ranging in height from two storeys to 12. The scheme was approved by Dublin City Council last February and appealed by the South West Inner City Partnership, mainly because of fears about its adverse impact on the setting of historic buildings.

      The board was being generous in granting permission against a strong recommendation from one of its senior planning inspectors, Kevin Moore, for a refusal – largely on urban design grounds. “There is a sameness about this development that should not be tolerated at this sensitive location,” he said.

      In his scathing assessment, Mr Moore noted that the area is “notably rich in architectural and historical heritage and contains some of the most significant and important buildings and complexes of buildings in the city and, indeed, the country”, including the Royal Hospital, which dates from 1684.

      He argued that the scheme “virtually ignores” the development framework plan for the area, which had been finalised by Dublin City Council in May 2003 – before it was submitted. He found it “disconcerting” that such a deviation was allowed, as there was ongoing contact with the planners.

      The main amenity space called for by the framework plan had been “seriously eroded” and its function “distorted”. It was “clearly not a planted area with a woodland character to create an appropriate edge to the Royal Hospital’s formal gardens”, but rather a contemporary manicured counterpoint.

      This was a “substantive deviation” from the purpose of the “carefully crafted” framework plan for developing the site and it suggested that the applicants had “discarded” its basic principles. “Why have such a framework plan and strategy if it is going to be so radically altered?”, Mr Moore asked.

      He concluded that the ability of the scheme to integrate with and enhance its surroundings “is very limited”. Its adverse environmental impact would also be “substantive and material” and it “fails to respect the significant cultural heritage of the area”, in particular the character of the Royal Hospital.

      Mr Moore identified the relationship between Ireland’s most important 17th century building and other notable buildings in the area, such as Dr Steevens’s Hospital, Heuston Station, Collins Barracks and the Phoenix Park as “a most valuable asset” of Dublin’s existing western gateway.

      Any new development “must also produce an expression of outstanding architectural, and indeed artistic, merit in my opinion. It demands the fulfilment of outstanding 21st century architecture sitting harmoniously alongside 17th and 19th century classic architectural structures and their settings”.

      Though Moore believed that this could be realised on the appeal site, he said the Eircom scheme “fails dismally [ and] loses all sense of its historic, architectural, landscape, landmark and gateway contexts. It is not exactly ‘fresh’ architecture. It has that ‘seen-it-all-before-around-Dublin’ appearance.”

      Given the sensitive setting of the Eircom site, he said this “more-of-the-same” quality “should not be tolerated adjoining the Royal Hospital and in the immediate vicinity of Heuston Station and Dr Steevens’s Hospital”. It would “result in a huge lost opportunity on such a significant site”.

      In a more detailed critique of its urban design, Mr Moore said the Eircom scheme “has the appearance of a series of individually designed blocks with no true theme”. It seemed to “turn its back entirely on the public street” with the “dull horizontal emphasis” and “blank expression” of an office park.

      Unlike the open character of historic buildings in the vicinity, the Eircom scheme was “almost entirely inward looking”. It would not form a “magnet” to attract the public, while its “lack of human scale” and over-emphasis on office space was “a serious threat” to its staying power as a vibrant urban quarter.

      “The wedging of a large number of comparatively high-density business park and regular apartment blocks between the Royal Hospital, Heuston Station and Dr Steevens’s Hospital offers no distinctiveness and erodes, rather than reinforces, the character of this area. In my view, it is incoherent in form.” It “most certainly would not enhance existing important views and vistas and would contribute little to the legibility of the area”, the inspector said. Whether approached from east or west, or seen from the Memorial Park at Islandbridge, it would appear as “a poor clutter of business park-type blocks”.

      He concluded that the scheme “has a strong sense of ‘get-as-much-as-you-can-onto-the-site’, while attempting to throw almost condescending platitudes towards the merits of the recently prepared Regeneration Plan. It makes a mundane contribution to the urban fabric at this location.”

      Mr Moore also agreed with the Irish Georgian Society’s complaint that there had been “project-splitting” between plans for the Eircom site, which is partly owned by the Office of Public Works, and another site just east of Military Road – owned entirely by the State – for which a separate application was made.

      “Given the OPW interest in both sites . . . this project-splitting approach should have been avoided,” he said. “It is unfortunate that the details of both schemes were not simultaneously available for public viewing to facilitate an assessment of how they would relate to each other and their environs.”

      However, An Bord Pleanála decided to grant permission subject to 18 conditions having regard to “the strategic location of the site at the western approach to the city in proximity to significant public transport facilities”. It said the modified scheme would be “acceptable” in urban design terms.

      Tony Reddy, who has championed the cause of urban design, characterised the inspector’s report as “one person’s view” and said the scheme had been presented to An Taisce and the Department of the Environment’s heritage section (formerly Dúchas) before Eircom lodged its planning application. “Given the extent of consultations that went on and the general acceptance of the scheme by so many experts, I am surprised and bemused that the inspector’s report deviated so spectacularly from their views,” Reddy said. “Thankfully, An Bord Pleanála disagreed and granted permission.”

      Both the OPW and Eircom had “responded positively” to the Heuston area framework plan, said Mr Reddy. “I take solace from the fact that our earlier urban regeneration projects which encountered similar minority opposition were subsequently recognised by our opponents as significant contributions to the city.”

      ARA’s own work in recent years has included part of the award-winning west end of Temple Bar, the west side of Patrick Street and Custom House Square, in the Docklands area. Apart from Eircom’s scheme at Heuston, current projects include a shopping centre at McDonagh Station in Kilkenny.

    • #748281

      Of course, now that Eircom has got permission so as to realise its full value, it will undoubtedly flog the site for someone else to develop.

      We can only hope the purchasers will seek variations to the permission that improve matters….

      I’m particularly disappointed by the approach to the border with the RHK gardens. That sounds like a real shame.

    • #748282

      An inaccuracy in the report was dealt with By John O’Sullivan in the letters page of the Irish Times last Saturday, ARA were never in contact with An Taisce as claimed in the article according to Mr O’Sullivan the chair of the An Taisce Dublin City Association Planning Sub Committee. As far as I know the Irish Georgian Society also objected on a number of grounds so they wern’t on board either it would appear.

    • #748283

      Do Board Pleannalla ever listen to their inspectors or do they just make decisions for the crack?

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