The debate on the future of Dublin is relaunched

A surprising pictorial image circulated among some Irish Instagram users last week. It depicts a burly man in a chalk striped suit dipping a fork into his gaping mouth. Impaled on the fork was the shape of County Dublin. The businessman was eating the city.

The poster, designed by musician and artist Sinéad Kennedy, was for a protest march last Saturday from Smithfield to Dublin City Council (DCC) offices. “Dublin is dying, save the Pavement, save Merchant’s Arch,” he implored, referring to two proposed new hotels near the city center, one endangering a pub and the other a row of independent shops.

On that day, hundreds of people turned up as protesters carried a coffin proclaiming the culture’s death.

Yet tourism is also struggling to come back from the dead after the devastating impact of public health restrictions.

Protesters have argued for several years that a proliferation of new hotel projects in Dublin is crowding out other vital developments, such as housing and space for the arts. There were as many as 80 new hotels in Dublin on offer at various stages of planning before the pandemic, although not all of them were supposed to be built.

Developers, state tourism officials and city planners respond that the city suffers from an overwhelming shortage of hotel accommodation that limits tourism and costs jobs. Abolishing hotel projects will not ensure the construction of houses or cultural spaces, they say.

The arrival of Covid-19 has interrupted the debate, as tourists have disappeared with the financial support of many hotel projects. The occupancy rate plunged to 10 percent. But as the vaccination program kicks off and tourism temporarily returns, hotel developers and, in response, protesters have followed suit. The former believe they are building for the prosperity of Dublin while the latter believe they are fighting for its soul.

Young people can’t afford to live in Dublin as the red carpet rolls out for developers

DCC officials say they are “caught in the middle” as they balance competing priorities. Meanwhile, the issue is relentlessly politicized by advisers.

“Young people cannot afford to live in Dublin while the red carpet is rolled out for developers,” says Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin, an activist and People Before Profit member who helped organize Saturday’s march.

Owen Keegan, Managing Director of DCC, expressed concern about “the increasingly hostile public / political attitude towards hotel investment in Dublin, which has real implications for the future development of the tourism sector”. It employs 65,000 people in the city and the stakes are therefore considerable.

Real estate agency Savills estimates that around 4,500 hotel rooms and 24 new hotels will be built in Dublin by the end of 2023. Few will generate as much controversy as those proposed for Merchant’s Arch in Temple Bar and the surrounding area. famous traditional music pub Le Pavé in Smithfield, Dublin 7.

The Merchant’s Arch project received the green light from An Bord Pleanála planning three weeks ago, upholding a DCC decision but against the recommendation of a council inspector. Local pub owner Tom Doone now has permission to demolish four shops along one side of the 200-year-old arch to build a three-story, nine-room boutique hotel and restaurant. The ark would remain intact.

Local resident, author and former Irish Times environmental editor Frank McDonald was among the opponents of the Merchant’s Arch project. He was also at the march last Saturday. “The place was packed. It indicates that people are not going to take this lying down stuff anymore, ”he says.

McDonald believes that a boom in commercial construction at a time when there is a chronic shortage of housing and cultural venues shows a ‘commodification’ of the city of Dublin at the behest of developers, backed by international investors with a ‘commodification’ of the city of Dublin. silver wall ”. He has written a new book on the city’s development, A Little History of the Future of Dublin, which will be released later this month.

He criticizes many town planning decisions and also believes that the Dublin City Development Plan “no longer means anything”: “Every site in the city over the past 10 years has been an opportunity to build housing. But so many hotels have been built, then student housing, and none of that affordable.

People are “pissed off… because things are being inflicted on them,” says McDonald, such as large-scale residential projects built for rental that have gone through fast-track planning procedures.

Protesters were already finding their post-pandemic voice when the Merchant’s Arch decision from Bord Pleanála was handed down. Then an application was filed with DCC days later for a 114-room hotel that would hug the Cobblestone, a spiritual home of traditional music in the city and a dilapidated haven. The tactile paper was rekindled on the “hotels versus culture” debate.

The application was filed by Marron Estates, owned by members of the Marron family based in Ireland and Great Britain, who have business interests on both sides of the Irish Sea in housing construction, agriculture and the civil engineering.

The proposal, which has yet to be considered by planners, would not demolish the Cobblestone, which has been traded for almost 35 years in a corner next to abandoned buildings. But he would shrink it, gobbling up his date space, the rear and outer sections. The twisted remains of the pub are said to be in the shadow of a nine-story hotel, questioning its viability as an independent entity.

The Cobblestone, Dublin. Photography: Alan Betson

I’ve never talked about this kind of problem before, but now I won’t stop making my voice heard

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Ó Ceannabháin. “There was tremendous energy during the protest. It was stimulating. It’s a campaign that I think we could win. People weren’t on the streets during the pandemic, but that could change pretty quickly, and the Cobblestone could be the spark. “

Ó Ceannabháin is both a musician and an activist and has performed there, just like his father. He says the Cobblestone is “more than a pub”. A petition he set up received nearly 32,000 signatures at the time of writing, while an avalanche of objection letters poured into DCC. “I have never spoken about this type of problem before, but now I will not stop making my voice heard,” said one signer.

But wouldn’t Ó Ceannabháin and other protesters accept that hotels bring jobs and commerce to a local area, and that there is no guarantee that a cultural venue or accommodation would replace a hotel? ‘He is stuck ? Apart from the pub, the three adjacent buildings that make up the hotel site have been abandoned since the 1990s.

“I am not against tourists. But who needs all these hotels? It’s not a choice between the status quo and a nine-story hotel, ”replies Ceannabháin.

Dublin City Council declined to comment on Cobblestone’s proposal for this article, as the planning request is ongoing. But in general terms, Keegan senses “the danger” that growing and growing opposition to hotels “will not solve the shortage of affordable accommodation, but it will limit the development of the tourism sector in Dublin.”

An economist by training, Keegan appreciates the sector’s ability to create a wide variety of jobs at many skill levels, and he notes the economic multiplier effect that tourism spending creates, as money is funneled to different businesses and businesses. suppliers.

If developers are prevented from building hotels, they will build affordable housing instead. This is not necessarily the case

“There is real concern about the level of political and public support for the tourism sector in Dublin,” says Keegan. “This is reflected in political opposition to proposals to build new hotels in the city council area, the introduction of restrictions on Airbnb and similar portals, and the recent controversy surrounding the decision to grant permission for a change. temporary use with regard to empty student accommodation to allow its use in tourist accommodation until May 2022.

He argues that there is a “widely held but simplistic view” that if developers are prevented from building hotels, they will build affordable housing instead. This is not necessarily the case, he suggests.

CDC Deputy Managing Director Richard Shakespeare oversees the planning department. He says the council is guided by the principles of its development plan – a new draft plan is due to be presented to the public next month. The “basic planning policy” for the central area of ​​the city is to promote mixed uses of space. Tourism and hospitality are valued by developers because they help “animate” a territory. Fáilte Ireland, the public tourism body, has also repeatedly lobbied the council over hotel shortages.

As soon as a hotel arrives, it is an anchor for much more

Shakespeare says the council is concerned about the protection of cultural spaces and that the draft development plan will likely contain provisions that large business planning requests must include space for “small-scale performances.” But, again, he argues that a moratorium on hotel development, as some advisers want, won’t necessarily mean the plots are being used for other purposes.

“Some brownfields in the city center have been abandoned and vacant for the past 20 to 30 years, until a hotel was built. He is [also] the case where certain cultural uses depend on low-value premises, and this is a real problem that the development plan does not have the power to address, ”he says.

Pat McCann, the outgoing managing director of Dalata, the country’s largest hotel operator and a major developer in Dublin in recent years, says it’s “unbelievable” what can happen in a city center like Smithfield when a hotel is installed there.

“Other companies are starting to multiply around it. Where there is no hotel, the activity in a street often stops in the evening. But a hotel promotes activity much later and prevents a dark streetscape, ”he says. “As soon as a hotel arrives, it is an anchor for much more.”

The Cobblestone protesters, meanwhile, are singing a different tune and appearing ready for a long fight.

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