Buyers help to redraw the city limits

Originally published in The Sunday Business Post, February 9th 2014

Last summer, Lord Mayor of Dublin Oisin Quinn proposed a new levy on vacant sites within the city centre – that area typically thought of as being with the canals (or within the North and South Circular Roads).  As regular readers of this  column and anyone watching the Dublin residential market will know, this is an area with severe shortages when  it comes to suitable housing for buyers and tenants alike.  Investors have seen the buy-in costs of their investment pushed up as banks drip-fed stock the market.  Meanwhile home-buyers have found themselves competing with those same investors who are  typically cash buyers and therefore in a position to make stronger offers.  The end result is that home-buyers have been squeezed out of the city once again.  And the Lord Mayor rightly identified that this situation is somewhat artificial as it now transpires that availability of development land is not the problem, rather, motivation to develop that land.  A recent audit of vacant land was undertaken by Dublin City Council and more than 600 potential site were identified.  The current position is that owners of a vacant commercial building that is not capable of occupation pays no rates or levies.  Also, the owners of vacant development land pay no levies – this simply does not make sense in a city where recovery is well underway and shortages of housing stock is driving upward pricing.  Essentially, the State is subsidising   speculative investment.   Public money is being spent to make safe and secure vacant lots that are, in reality, magnets for anti-social behaviour and which detract from the area’s overall appeal while the owners sit tight and wait for the market to lift the value of their investment.  


Earlier this week I took the opportunity to meet with Dublin City Architect Ali Grehan and Senior Planner Kieran Rose about an upcoming event taking place on 13th February.  The aim of the event is to let people know about interesting initiatives underway by Dublin City Council and to encourage proposals from city dwellers, potential residents and community groups about how best to use some of the vacant sites around the city.  We have seen how community initiatives can improve an area and how people living in the area are well-positioned to devise uses for the vacant space, for example, Granby Park proved hugely successful as a pop-up park in Dublin 1.  There are many other examples from urban gardens and allotments to art and cultural endeavours.   It is fair to say that in the area of housing, there has been little delivered by way of innovation to date; however, the city architects are currently working on a number of interesting projects (check out Dublin House project and Dublin House 2.0) and are actively looking for ways to adapt the overhang of existing unsuitable stock to make it suitable.  For example, if families do not want to live in two-bed apartments, rather than just making provisions for future planning to reflect this, how can the existing units be altered to make them more appealing to families.  Certainly the physical building plays a huge part, but it is only one part of what makes a ‘home’.  Local amenities, access to outdoor/green areas and a sense of community are all vital components and these need to be developed alongside housing units.  There is a well established pattern of young professionals working and renting in the city for much of their early careers and then moving out to the   suburbs in time for their marriage, children, schools and, dare I say it, real lives to start.  This is not my opinion, it is a reflection of what is happening.  Why are families not considering staying within the city centre to raise their children?  Is it a lack of suitable housing, outdoor space, sense of community or is it the perception that none of these things are available in the city?  Whatever the reason, it is a poor indictment of our city and one that needs to change.


In my discussion with Dublin City architect Ali Grehan, I brought up the allotment home scheme that has been floated for the Dublin 8 area as one potential housing solution insofar as it offers a temporary use (perhaps 10 years) for a brownfield site in transition.  And Ali rightly pointed out  “I have a problem with the word permanent. Everything is to some extent temporary, the question is for how long”.  This is arguably the best way to approach planning the needs of a contemporary, evolving city.  It does not just allow for change but demands it. It will be interesting to see what proposals come forward when the opportunity arises.


Through this series of on-going initiatives, continuing with an open-invitation consultation evening next Thursday, Dublin City Council is not presenting a plan for the city but rather asking the people living, working and using the city how they want their city to look.  There have been no pledges or grand gestures, but simply a willingness to accept that our city is not as great as it has the potential to be, and an openness to listen to new ideas.  So if you have the vision to create a home where there is none, or to contribute to making Ireland’s first allotment home scheme a reality, come along to the event next Thursday at 18.00 to the Dubin City Council offices on Wood Quay, Dublin and make your voice heard. 


Site/land owners who are likely to be affected by the introduction of the levy and also encouraged to attend.  For such owners, it is worth remembering that the purpose of the levy is not simply to penalise  but to incentivise responsible use of land current left idle.  As senior planner with Dublin City Council, Kieran Rose, surmised,  this levy is effectively an “unused land levy” and it makes financial sense for owners to allow interim uses that might have community benefits, while waiting to develop the sites.

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