Position of helium balloon shows height of the proposed hotel
This is a copy of the submission I’ve made to Dublin City Council planners on plans for a nine-storey hotel at the corner of Middle Abbey Street and Upper Liffey Street:
Proposals for new hotels, including budget hotels, must be welcomed in principle as Dublin now has a major deficit in tourist accommodation judging by the number of apartments which have been converted into commercial short-lets via Airbnb and other internet platforms — illegally, in the vast majority of cases. Airbnb alone currently offers more than 3,100 “entire homes” for holiday lettings, thereby contributing to the city’s severe housing crisis as well as applying upward pressure on rental levels for houses and apartments to live in.
Unfortunately, it is in the nature of budget hotels to have uniform room sizes and repetitive windows. Apart from a feature corner tower, the seven-storey Holiday Inn on Upper O’Connell Street has a two-storey penthouse set back from a parapet above its stone-clad lower floors. In that case, the stone cladding was obviously intended as a reference to the predominant material used in rebuilding O’Connell Street after the destruction caused during the 1916 Rising and the Civil War. But it appears as mere wallpaper in the context of then City Architect Horace Tennyson O’Rourke’s grand design.
During the property bubble era, Dublin City Council — and An Bord Pleanála — approved plans to redevelop the Clarence Hotel and adjoining buildings, retaining only their façades and raising the overall height to nine storeys, including a “flying saucer” bar and restaurant at roof level. This would have included adding four floors to the retained façades of four Wide Streets Commissioners’ buildings, each four storeys high, to the east of the Clarence Hotel, making them look nonsensical. Mercifully, this scheme did not proceed when the bubble burst.
The proposed development at Upper Liffey Street and Middle Abbey Street would be nine storeys high — six storeys to the parapet level and a further three storeys above it, set back from its edge so that they could not be seen from street level. The feint rendering in drawings of the three “penthouse” floors is intended to make them appear invisible, even irrelevant, in the context. Yet it is clear that the true scale of this building would be visible all the way down Lower Liffey Street and from the Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin’s most “iconic” emblem.
The site of the proposed development is misleadingly described as a “brownfield site” even though it is occupied entirely by buildings, most of which are still in use for retailing. It is, therefore, in no way comparable with the large vacant site located in the immediate vicinity between Upper Abbey Street and Great Strand Street — a genuine “brownfield site”. All of the buildings on the applicant’s site are to be demolished and replaced by a single building substantially larger in scale and lacking any of the variety that goes with relatively narrow plot widths.
According to Wikipedia, “Brownfield land is an Anglo-American term used in urban planning to describe, in Western Europe, any previously developed land that is not currently in use, whether contaminated or not, or in North America, more specifically to describe land previously used for industrial or commercial purposes with known or suspected pollution including soil contamination due to hazardous waste”. In no sense can the site at Middle Abbey Street/Upper Liffey Street be classified as “brownfield” in either of these contexts.
All but two of the existing buildings on the site are currently trading, and even one of the two vacant buildings is now advertised to let. Of those that are trading, one is occupied by Carroll’s Irish Gifts in what was built as a bank premises in the 1980s. The others include a barber shop, a hairdressing salon, a vape shop and two fashion stores. If this is a “brownfield site”, then any similar collection of buildings from the 18th to the 20th century anywhere in the inner city could similarly be classified as such, which is clearly nonsensical.
Included in the planning application is a series of “contextual elevations” purporting to show the proposal in juxtaposition with existing buildings on both streets. The most substantial of the buildings shown is the former Independent House, which is only five storeys high, topped by a French-style Baroque roof. Even at parapet height, the proposed budget hotel would be taller — not counting the three storeys above it that would take the building much higher, to the same level as the tips of a pair of long, thin finials above the roof of Independent House.
The submitted design statement talks about the development of a “trend-setting budget hotel” at a “prominent location” in the city centre, creating a “landmark building as a focal point for the redevelopment of the wider, generally neglected area”. One of the buildings on the site is admittedly a single-storey shack, while those immediately opposite (at the junction of Upper Liffey Street and Upper Abbey Street) are just two storeys in height — a “low-rise” scale that’s entirely inappropriate even for secondary streets in the central area.
I agree with the design statement when it says that any development on the site, “as part of the established grain of the city centre, needs to respond to the existing character and streetscape of the area”. It then goes on: “The southwest corner of the application site is in a prominent location that can be seen from all directions … with direct views to and from the Ha’penny Bridge. This presents an opportunity to emphasise the corner and create a landmark that will act as a focal point on the approach” — which it then fails to carry through.
Having considered options for a high-rise tower on the corner site, on par with the tower proposed in the abortive Northern Quarter scheme, the architects ruled it out “due to a new height policy for the town centre of Dublin”. Instead, they concluded that “massing of uniform height (remaining below the policy-defined 28m height)” would be the right approach. “Continuous massing and increased height emphasise the prominent corner condition and lend the proposed building a presence within the streetscape and wider townscape views”.
Collado Collins, the London-based architects, knew that Dublin City Council planners had reservations about the sheer scale of what they were proposing. During formal pre-application meetings, they were told that the planners had “some concerns” about massing, height and scale and whether changes could be made to reduce visual impact. As a result, the architects reconfigured their scheme from a nine-storey building with its upper two floors set back from the Middle Abbey Street frontage to a nine-storey
building with its upper three floors set back from the frontages on both streets.
According to the architects, this would result in “a significant reduction in perceived scale of the building, especially in views on Liffey Street and along Abbey Street”. The introduction of Juliette balconies, metal window reveals, planter boxes at first-floor level, different materials to define a central atrium in the Middle Abbey Street elevation, and different brick details as “a slight nod to the tradition of brick detailing in the area” are all legitimate architectural devices, but there can be no question that they are the equivalent of “putting lipstick on a gorilla” as the proposed building would still be grossly out-of-scale.
The essential pretence is that it would not be a nine-storey building, nor seen as such from any angle. But even the inadequate computer-generated photomontages of what it would look like from different points, north and south of the River Liffey, show that it would be a behemoth. Absent from those montages is any view from rooftops, perhaps for the obvious reason that the proposed budget hotel would appear colossal on the skyline, much as the nearby Jervis Centre multi-storey car park looms up in views north from our roof terrace in Temple Bar; it was cheaper to pile up rather than dig down for basement car parking.
One of the most attractive features of Dublin city centre is its generally low-rise, human scale. Yet already, the skyline has become quite discordant as a result of various schemes permitted by Dublin City Council’s planners over the past 20 years or so that should never have got beyond the drawing board. The proposed budget hotel at the corner of Middle Abbey Street and Upper Liffey Street — due to its height, bulk, scale and massing — would simply compound a trend that threatens to turn Dublin into an anywhere kind of city, with random eruptions such as this on its historic skyline.
Independent House is the largest building on Middle Abbey Street, significantly exceeding the height of both surviving Georgian houses and buildings from the 1920s that replaced those destroyed during the 1916 Rising, all of which are no more than four storeys high. To retain the scale of the street, no permission should be granted for any new building that exceeds the height of Independent House, which is five storeys, not including its elaborate roof. Thus, the proposed hotel should have a parapet no higher than five storeys, with a single-storey penthouse level, suitably set back above it.
Certainly, permission should be refused for what is currently on offer. Alternatively, if permission is granted, it should be subject to the design being amended to reduce the overall height from nine to six storeys, arranged as suggested above. Obviously, this would necessitate reducing the number of hotel bedrooms from the 365 proposed in the planning application and, therefore, the profitability of the overall scheme. However, it should still be profitable at six storeys, given that the site itself has extensive frontages of 45m along Middle Abbey Street and 50 metres along Upper Liffey Street.
What this scheme demonstrates, in proposing an overall height of 27.7 metres from ground level, is the utter folly of Dublin City Council’s decision to permit buildings of up to 28 metres on any site in the inner city under the current city development plan. The juxtaposition of buildings of this scale with the general height of four-to-five storeys in the city centre and two to three storeys in much of the rest of the inner city, is nothing less than a recipe for visual chaos and urgently needs to be reconsidered. Otherwise, Dublin’s skyline will be lost, and the planners/city officials will only have themselves to blame.
There is one other aspect of this scheme that I would like to comment on — the proposed bar at ground-floor level. Under our bizarre licensing laws, anyone who builds a hotel with 20 bedrooms or more is entitled to a full bar licence; this accounts for much of the proliferation of bars and nightclubs (quaintly known as “function rooms”, in licensing terms) in the Temple Bar area, with consequential knock-on effects on the neighbourhood, particularly “entertainment noise breakout” from heavily-amplified musicians performing inside many of these premises.
Dublin City Council planners, in dealing with this application, should impose a condition that there should be no live music in the proposed hotel’s bar, nor should there be any external loudspeakers to broadcast music of any kind into the surrounding area. Such a condition was imposed by Dublin Corporation and An Bord Pleanála in relation to the Quays Bar, on Temple Bar Square, in 1997, viz: “The public bar shall not be used for amplified music. There shall be no outdoor broadcasting of music from the premises”. The reason given was “to protect residential amenity”.
But the fundamental issue in this case is one of inappropriate scale, which is clearly driven by the developer’s expectations — in effect, “market forces”. Smithfield shows where that leads. Once billed as Dublin’s answer to the Piazza Navona in Rome, it was first redeveloped in a relatively modest way on its eastern side during the early 1990s, with a building height of five storeys. Later, as the Celtic Tiger boom entered its phosphorescent phase, the western side of Smithfield was redeveloped in swaggering style, at a general height of nine storeys, including a setback penthouse level. The result is a lop-sided mess that bears no relationship to the Piazza Navona.
The redevelopment of Smithfield is the classic example of how the city is reshaped by market forces, whether in lean times or boom times. Dublin City Council planners could have held the line by imposing a maximum height for new buildings around the square. Instead, however, they went along with what the developers proposed, apart from cutting down the height of the central tower above the Light House cinema complex. That’s why it looks truncated, like much older church spires, which were never completed as planned, such as St Catherine’s Church on Thomas Street or the former Bluecoat School.
The difference between Smithfield and the site of the current planning application is that the former is a large open space while the latter involves two city centre streets, including Middle Abbey Street, which is one of Dublin’s principal streets. Granting permission for the proposed development, at nine storeys in height, would create a dangerous precedent by implying that the planning authority is prepared to consign the rest of it — on both sides — to the dustbin of history. Without a single derelict site along its entire length, but rather a quite coherent streetscape, Middle Abbey Street emphatically does not deserve such a grim fate.
For all of these reasons, I would urge the planning authority to refuse permission for the proposed development or, alternatively, to grant permission subject to stringent conditions, including (1) a substantial reduction in height from nine storeys to six, including a setback penthouse level, and (2) no scope for the proposed hotel bar to be turned into yet another “boom, boom” pub/nightclub, at the expense of inner city residents living in the immediate vicinity on both Middle Abbey Street and Upper Liffey Street.