Temple Bar Square was one of the key elements of 1991 plans to transform the whole area into Dublin’s “cultural quarter”. Now looking rather tired and decrepit as well as cluttered with café/bar enclosures, it’s finally set for a makeover — even though there are serious question marks over how this will be achieved.
Proposals to refurbish the square were first put forward a few years ago by Cathal O’Neill, former professor of architecture at UCD, on behalf of Temple Bar Company, which represents business interests in the area. But since the company had no control over the square, it was in no position to implement O’Neill’s vision.
Now Dublin City Council’s parks department is co-ordinating a more serious effort to re-make the square and its immediate surroundings, with Peter Leonard as project manager of a design team led by REDscape and GKMP Architects — and the plan they’ve devised is currently out for public consultation under Part 8 of the 2000 Planning Act.
A brainstorming session with stakeholders last April clearly identified many of the issues that needed to be addressed, including the effective privatisation of large chunks of Temple Bar Square by the Bad Ass pub, Café Vivaldi and the GBK burger restaurant that replaced Trastevere, all of which have their own enclosures.
There were also calls for the square to be “greener” and more multi-functional with space for neighbourhood public events as well as brighter lighting and better-quality paving. The three lighting masts on its west side haven’t functioned for years, while the paving has also failed and is actually breaking up in several places.
REDscape and GKMP had to consider issues such as the flexibility and utility of the square as well as its accessibility for service vehicles, the needs of pedestrians and how to reduce the pervasive clutter of sandwich boards on footpaths, particularly along Crown Alley, which links the Central Bank plaza with Temple Bar Square.
Although the existing outdoor enclosures are all licensed by the city council, which receives rental income from the businesses involved, there was a strong consensus among Temple Bar residents on the need to reclaim the square as a public space. Inevitably, those who profit from the current arrangements do not share this view.
Yet the 1991 Temple Bar Architectural Framework Plan set out to create not just fine contemporary buildings, but also new public spaces in the area. In the case of Temple Bar Square, this laudable objective was compromised by Temple Bar Cultural Trust by licensing privatised enclosures on the square, as part of a programme to “sweat the assets”.
Inspired by European examples of attractively reinvented public squares, the latest plan would eliminate these enclosures and possibly provide a relatively small number of communal tables and chairs on the east side of Temple Bar Square, under a large mature specimen tree some 25 metres high that would be visible all along Crown Alley.
Three smaller trees are proposed for the west side of the square, in place of the failed lighting masts, while the five existing silver birches along its northern edge would go; these were “lopped” some years ago and now look less than their best. Two long stone benches for seating are also proposed on the west side, close to Fownes Street.
Catenary lighting, strung from surrounding buildings, is proposed to brighten up Temple Bar Square and the stone benches would also incorporate some lighting, with the secondary purpose of deterring drug-dealers; it was for this reason that several wooden benches at the O’Connell Street end of the Liffey Boardwalk were removed.
The plan also provides for a levelling of the square, eliminating the steps that currently exist “to improve access and movement”. This would have the effect of doubling its “footprint” from 485 square metres to about 1,000 sq m, with its entire surface area re-paved in “small modules” of Leinster granite, to unite the whole space.
It is also planned to eliminate kerbs. Crown Alley, Fownes Street and a stretch of Temple Bar running west would have smooth footpaths in Leinster granite while the carriageways would be paved in limestone setts, commonly known as “cobbles”. New drainage channels, similar to those in Henry Street, would replace existing gutters.
It is good that setts are even being considered at all, given the view of some senior council officials — including Brendan Kenny, who’s in charge of housing and culture — that they should be substantially replaced by a smoother stone surfaces to make it easier for people to walk through the area, which already attracts a substantial “footfall”.
This time, the limestone setts would be laid correctly for a change. Since the late 1980s, setts in Temple Bar have been laid with gaps between them crudely filled with tar now pockmarked with beer bottle caps. Now, they are to be put down more tightly, with mortar as a bond, just as they were on May Lane, between Bow Street and Church Street.
But how can all of this be achieved, let alone be maintained over time, when there are rogue elements in Dublin City Council’s Road Maintenance Services division that persistently rip up traditional stone paving and replace it with tarmac or concrete, as if its officials have never even read the current Dublin City Development Plan?
Appendix 7 of the plan, dealing with “stone setts to be retained, restored or introduced” is quite explicit about traditional paving in Temple Bar and even lists 17 streets in the area where limestone setts, granite paving flags and kerbing are all to be “retained in situ or restored”, in line with a 2009 DCC conservation guidance manual.
Last May, however, residents and local businesses were advised by contractors Tarstone that it had been commissioned by the council’s Road Maintenance Services division to remove “existing road speed ramps” in the area and reconstruct them with “bituminous material”. It didn’t seem to matter at all that this involved ripping up listed traditional paving.
In one case, at the junction of Cecilia Street and Crow Street, the limestone setts and granite paviors had only been laid in August 2016, and allegedly needed to be replaced because “the use of modular materials on carriageways which are subject to vehicular traffic frequently fails”. Yet this junction is in a pedestrian zone, where there is no traffic pressure.
Ronan O’Dea, a senior Road Maintenance Services engineer, said the previous work “was not unfortunately [done] to a high standard”. But when I asked him if he had actually inspected the paving — which was stable and solid, rather than falling apart, as my photo of it shows — before Tarstone replaced it all with tarmac, he admitted that he hadn’t.
“The area engineer was of the opinion that the reinstatement on completion has been opened to traffic too soon and, as he had a contactor engaged in the area, he considered it more prudent to reinstate the area in tarmac,” O’Dea explained. Stone paving was also removed at the Aston Quay junctions of Asdill’s Row, Aston Place and Bedford Row.
As for when (if ever) the paving might be done right, he said: “Unfortunately, there are some logistical difficulties in reinstating modular materials such as stone setts and granite kerbs in narrow streets in a timely manner. This is due to the need for long duration road closures to be in place to allow bedding material gain adequate strength.”
But Tarstone let the cat out of the bag. On the very day that it carried out the work at Cecilia Street/Crow Street, I spoke to the chap in charge and asked him why on earth the paving was being replaced with tarmac, and he said it was to do with people slipping on the setts or paviors. I asked Ronan O’Dea if this was the real reason, but got no response.
This raises a profound question over the future of all traditional paving in the Temple Bar area and throughout the city centre. The logic of the Road Maintenance Services position in this scenario is that ALL “modular materials” on the city’s streets should be replaced with tarmac, with a thin concrete kerb separating footpaths from carriageways.
Even basic maintenance of granite footpaths in the Temple Bar area is often carried out in ignorant disregard for the high aspirations of the city development plan, as my photo of recent work on Temple Lane clearly shows; instead of using granite, Road Maintenance Services slapped on concrete kerbing which was “tagged” by vandals before it was even set.
Before Dublin City Council proceeds to invest €1 million or more in re-making Temple Bar Square, its chief executive, Owen Keegan, needs to call in the roads engineers involved in maintenance of the public realm and make it absolutely clear to them that traditional stone paving in the city must be retained rather than replaced by the banality of tarmac.
In the meantime, it is anticipated that traders with enclosures on Temple Bar Square will be lobbying city councillors to allow them to maintain the part-privatisation of what should be a prime public space in the city. It is therefore essential that as many people as possible who value the public realm should make their views known to the councillors.
* The Temple Bar Square refurbishment plan is on public exhibition at the Civic Offices, Wood Quay, with August 30th as the deadline for making submissions on it.