875 Social Units for Glass Bottle Site

Housing protests are gaining in strength. Demonstrators gather on Kildare Street as part of the ‘Raise the Roof’ protest on Saturday May 19th, courtesy of Raise the Roof.

 Peter McNamara

On April 11th, An Bord Pleanála gave the go-ahead for the development of an “urban quarter” at the Glass Bottle site at Poolbeg. Crucially, plans for the benighted site will include 875 social and affordable homes.

A total of 3,500 apartments, designed to house about 8,000 people, are to be built on the former Irish Glass Bottle Company lands and the smaller neighbouring Fabrizia site, which cover about 15 hectares all together. Plans for the SDZ include 350 units for social housing, while a further 525 of the residential units shall be designated for “social and affordable housing purposes”, making a total of 875. The plan will also deliver 860,000 sq ft of commercial development as well as school sites and community space. 

For members of the Irish Glass Bottle Site Housing Action Group, those volunteers that have been fighting on the side of the local community since the Strategic Development Zone was announced in May 2016, news of the board’s decision marks a hard-won victory. For many the decision will come as a relief. Only a few weeks ago, hopes for the previously agreed social/affordable allocation – or for any social housing in the development – were hanging by a thread. 

When the SDZ was first outlined, the housing units were capped at 2,500. During the 2017 negotiations, the receiver Deloitte sought permission to build 3,500 housing units. In turn, local councillors demanded an increase in the social and affordable housing allocation on the site, from the legislated 350 units to 900 units (over 25% of the total). They passed a motion to lift the SDZ cap in return for increased units priced in the reach of local people. That plan was approved by An Bord Pleanála. The only left to do was start building.  

In April 2018, David Carson, on behalf of Deloitte, lodged an appeal with An Bord Pleanála against the 25%+ allocation of social/affordable housing. In clear disregard for the understanding reached with councillors, Carson insisted on no more than the 10% allocation required by legislation. Councillors threatened to withdraw their support for any deal, which would have delayed building on the SDZ for several more years. 

In this context, An Bord Pleanala’s decision to do the right thing by the local community and the councillors, is a credit to them. 

Senator Kevin Humphries had been fighting for a fair social allocation on the Glass Bottle Site for almost twenty years. He was delighted with the news. 

“This is a landmark decision,” he told me. “It couldn’t have been done without the local activists. They were so well organised, they never lost sight of their goal, and they fought so long and hard.” 

Glad as he was, Senator Humphries did sound a note of warning. “It’s a good plan. But we’re not over the line yet. For this point on detail will be of the utmost importance. How much will the homes cost? What will be the mechanism of allocation? We need to ensure a bias for local people in the selection process, to ensure the long-term sustainability of the community.”

A Promising Vision Amid Worry Trends 

An Bord Pleanála ruled that plans for the site provide for “adequate leisure, community, educational, commercial facilities and public realm for future residents”, as well as for sustainable modes of transport.

It further added that the plans provide for “adequate infrastructural facilities” to service the area, and “allow for the creation of an attractive urban quarter”. Owners of landbanks on the site are to prepare public realm “master plans” that will include street furniture, play equipment, lighting and public art, and their arrangement and location within the street.

An Bord Pleanála ruled that to encourage “sustainable communities”, build-to-rent apartments would be limited to a maximum of 150 units in each of the four main blocks of the development. The planning scheme will also seek to ensure that developments contribute to the 5 % allocation of space in the docklands area to be used for social, community, cultural, creative and artistic purposes.

The plans will also include parking details including exact number of off-street and on-street spaces, loading spaces and accessible spaces. All car parking within basements are to be provided with electric charging points, while all visitor parking will be provided with ducting for electric charging, capping off what seems an encouraging vision for a balanced, warm, and future-proof locality.

An Bord Pleanala’s announcement comes amid worrying trends against the philosophy of socially mixed housing developments in this city. Over the last few weeks, Dublin City Council has opted not to acquire units for social housing at three new docklands developments: 6 Hanover Quay, Bolandʼs Mill and 8 Hanover Quay.

Under planning laws, the council is entitled to acquire 10% of residential units at new developments in the city centre for social housing. But despite its stated preference for acquiring units on site, the council has increasingly come to agreements with developers to acquire homes at alternative locations rather than pay escalating docklands prices.

The Cairn Homes development of 6 Hanover Quay, for example, which comprises 120 apartments, a restaurant and cafe, will have no social housing. Instead of securing 12 or so of the apartments at the development, at an average gross price of €800,000 per unit, the council opted instead to agree with the developer to acquire 13 units at nearby Castleforbes Square in Dublin 1. 

Similarly, the council has also come to an agreement with the developer of the Bolandʼs Mill site on Dublinʼs Barrow Street. Instead of acquiring four or so apartments at the site, the council will buy three units elsewhere “within the electoral area”. 

A comparable agreement was reached with developers of the Reflector Building on 8 Hanover Quay. The six-storey office edifice, home to Airbnb and LogmeIn, also contains 40 apartments. But here again rather than acquire four of these units, the council opted for four “off site”, although it did not indicate exactly where. 

It is the latest in a series of such agreements. Earlier this year, the council came to an accord with Kennedy Wilson – developers of the Capital Dock on Dublinʼs Sir John Rogersonʼs Quay – where apartments are being rented from €3,300 a month. Instead of acquiring 10 % of the 190 apartments for social housing, the council agreed to purchase 40 from the developer at the Herberton development in Rialto instead.

Turn the Tide: “Public Housing on Public Land”

The profit-driven “vulture funds”, that have preyed on bankruptcy and bad debt in Ireland since 2010, are beginning to be replaced by “cuckoo funds”, global corporate investors that specialise in buying up blocks of residential housing before individuals and families get a chance. These same investors then turn around and rent these homes at increasingly extortionate rates, driving up the price of rents, and in turn the price of residential property in Dublin. Such a vicious cycle threatens to cheat a generation out of ever owning a home, or of having a secure place to live for many years to come. 

Last year ‘cuckoo fundsʼ spent over €1.1 billion on nearly 3,000 residential properties in Ireland, smashing previous records, according to a report by Savills. The major funds hoovered up five times more housing units than in 2017, accounting for almost 30% of last yearʼs total property investment. Worse still, their huge profits are essentially untaxed. 

The decision to include a fair allocation of social units at the Poolbeg SDZ is an encouraging win in the fight to turn the tide against unaffordable rents and unattainable mortgages. 

For Senator Kevin Humphries, the solution is simple: “We need public housing on public land. We need housing that can cover a range of incomes and people, not forgetting those who are trapped renting, and can’t properly save. It’s a question of political will. This dismal situation has gone on too long and is getting worse.”

There is more to be done to ensure the remarkable plan for the Poolbeg “urban quarter” is brought to proper fruition. But from this vantage, An Bord Pleanála’s decision appears to be an energising victory for community, local democracy, and people power.