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Why a site in a sought-after area of Dublin remains derelict after 20 years of inactivity

Site opposite Coombe Hospital is an example of how long-term dereliction is tolerated

The first sight a new mother experiences when she leaves the Coombe Maternity Hospital with her baby is one of many examples of dereliction in Dublin.

At numbers 43-50 Dolphin’s Barn Street all the windows are boarded up. Shopfronts are graffiti strewn. A tree has sprouted from the ruins of one of the houses. The only thing that lives here are the pigeons which have befouled the streets opposite with their droppings.

Even the posters at the site highlighting this dereliction in the middle of Ireland’s housing crisis are torn and peeling. Behind the facade is what used to be Kavanagh’s Printers, a business that moved out of the area in 2005. The only extant business on the row is C&F Motor Factors. Its co-owner Colm Caffrey says there used to be a grocery shop, a wool shop, a florist and a barber there, but one by one they all closed down. The site has been like this for almost 20 years.

Together with the old printing factory the site extends to 0.8 acres, a substantial inner-city plot within 3km of the city centre and less than 1km from the new national children’s hospital.

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The planning files show the site is owned by a company called Majick Hour Ltd based in Belfast, with the property developer and former concert promoter Eamonn McCann also involved.

Majick originally applied for planning permission in 2017 for a 70-apartment build-to-rent development with a mixture of retail and residential. A spokesman for the developer outlined the original zoning for the site was commercial. When the developer pointed out that there was enough commercial space in the area the council gave them planning permission for the original development providing they included a commercial space on the ground floor.

When the developer could not find an anchor tenant they put the whole site up for sale in 2019 at a price of €7 million, but there were no takers.

After the then minister for housing Eoghan Murphy lifted height restrictions on residential apartment blocks in 2018 the developer submitted another plan, this time for a nine-storey development of 120 units consisting of studio, one-bed and two-bed apartments as build-to-rent. The understanding was that Dublin City Council would rent the development from them after it was completed, a spokesman for the developer says.

A planning application was submitted straight to An Bord Pleanála on December 16th, 2021, under the now defunct strategic housing development (SHD) initiative.

A month later Dublin City Council (DCC) got cold feet about studio apartments and also the idea of an entire development being build-to-rent.

An Bord Pleanála is supposed to decide SHD applications within 16 weeks. This one was meant to be decided by April 20th, 2022, according to the An Bord Pleanála website, yet almost two years later there is still no decision.

An Bord Pleanála says it has not made a ruling on the development as it is awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court appeal for a similar development. This relates to a developer in Dún Laoghaire who wants to build a 12-storey apartment block with 102 apartments on the grounds of St Michael’s Hospital.

The question at stake in relation to the Dún Laoghaire development is whether it should be allowed under the old 2016 development plan for the area or the more up-to-date plan from 2022, which does not include height restrictions.

A spokesman for the board explained: “During the course of the application (for Dolphin’s Barn Street) the development plans changed. There is currently a legal case before the courts dealing with a similar issue, and the board is waiting for the outcome of the court’s decision before it makes its decision on this case.”

The two year and three month delay in planning permission means, according to the developer’s spokesman, that “what we have applied for is something that nobody wants. Even if we get planning permission DCC don’t want it. It has taken so long,” he said, in reference to studio apartments. “We now have plans, we are going ahead with a different scheme entirely because, even if we get planning permission for this one, it is of no use for us.”

The detail of these new plans have not yet been unveiled.

Dublin City Council entered the site on the Derelict Sites Register in May 2021, and it became liable for the derelict sites levy from January 1st, 2022. The levy is 7 per cent of the market value of the property. Dublin City Council has charged levies on the developer for the site in 2022 and 2023.

The developer won’t pay the levy, his spokesman said. “We went to DCC two years ago and told them that we’d like to demolish these buildings and they said ‘no you can’t demolish them. If you are demolishing them you are enacting your planning permission and you need to carry that through to its conclusion’,” the spokesman added.

“They are charging us €200,000 a year in fines [levies]. It would take less than €200,000 to demolish the buildings and clean up the site. It is ridiculous beyond words. You can’t make it up.”

In response Dublin City Council stated: “Demolition in itself is not sufficient to render a site non-derelict, the site would need to be developed.”

Former Dublin City Council planner Kieran Rose, who lives in the local area and has taken a keen interest in the site, says it is an exemplar of what is wrong with the planning system at present. The constant changing in government policy is leading to the sort of uncertainty that is stopping developments being built. “It is very reasonable for a developer to maximise profit. You could have predicted as day follows night that planning permissions would be revised once the height restrictions were lifted.”

While the developer, council and planning authority squabble over who is responsible for the state of 43-50 Dolphin’s Barn Street there is no onus on any of them to tidy the site up and make it less of an eyesore.

Rose said the anglophone world has a culture of a toleration of dereliction that you do not see in continental Europe. “The lack of concern is visible. It shows you that local authorities don’t prioritise derelict sites in terms of staff resources. There is a public sense of cities and towns and villages in European and owners adopt that culture of respect. The opposite seems to apply here.”

Within a 10 minute walk of the Coombe there are several other sites lying idle. They include:

33-37 Dolphin’s Barn Street:

The site at the junction of South Circular Road and Dolphin’s Barn Street is only metres from the one opposite the Coombe and is another example of dereliction. It is owned by Dublin City Council. The Iveagh Trust, which provides social and affordable housing around Dublin, has been selected by the council to build housing on the site and it has been working on designing this, including a community consultation exercise. A planning application for the site is imminent, the trust says.

Player Wills cigarette factory, 148-160 South Circular Road

The old Player Wills cigarette factory site on Dublin’s South Circular Road has seen some of the most protracted and high-profile battles between a would-be developer and local residents.

US property group Hines bought the former factory and Bailey Gibson packaging plant sites on the South Circular Road, which had been in the control of Nama, in 2018. Hines was granted permission in 2020 by An Bord Pleanála for 416 homes with a 16-storey apartment block on the Bailey Gibson site.

In 2022 the board granted the developer permission for the construction of 732 apartments across four blocks with one building rising to a height of 19 storeys on the Player Wills lands. Judicial review proceedings were taken by local residents against both developments. In 2021, the High Court referred aspects of the Bailey Gibson case to the European Court of Justice. The case was determined in Hines’ favour but this was then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Agreement was reached in November last year though development has yet to begin on the site. It is expected Hines will now work with the Land Development Agency (LDA), which is developing the adjoining former St Teresa’s Gardens flat complex, which will include a 15-storey block.

Last year An Bord Pleanála granted permission for more than 540 social and cost-rental apartments at the site. Initially the LDA intended to build 700 apartments in blocks up to 22-storeys tall, but it scaled back these plans following local and political opposition.

Rialto Cinema, 355 South Circular Road

The Rialto Cinema site is less than 500m away from the derelict site on Dolphin’s Barn Street. It opened as a cinema in 1936, and is one of the finest examples of art-deco architecture in Dublin, but is now in a sorry state.

Windsor Motors vacated the premises in the late 1990s, with no one else taking up tenancy and it has remained vacant since. The building was sold in November 2017 to an unnamed party by BNP Paribas for €2.7 million.

In 2019 Molaga Capital applied for planning permission for a 317-bedroom student accommodation complex, with cafe, gym and outdoor garden area included. Permission was granted in November of that year, but nothing has happened to date.

The James Weir Home, 103-104 Cork Street

Though not derelict the James Weir Home has been vacant for many years and is lying idle. It was built in 1903 as accommodation for up to 50 nurses working at the Cork Street fever hospital and was subsequently used as a ward of St Brendan’s hospital. It is owned by the HSE. In a statement the HSE said the site was “surplus to its requirements”.

It has been exploring options with “all State stakeholders”, including local authorities. Having had initial inquires in relation to the property there is currently no active interest expressed in the property by any State agency. The HSE is now considering putting the site on the open market.

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