When our Obersturmführer for property developers, Simon Coveney designated the former Glass Bottle plant a Strategic Development Zone, there was plenty of celebratory hoo ha in the media for the 3,000 homes promised as part of the scheme. However far from being an answer to the capital’s housing problem, a little digging leads Rashers Tierney to find this SDZ represents a brewing triumvirate of social exclusion, vulture funds and tech sector worship that is quickly reshaping our city.
Dublin needs houses and by god, the regime is going to deliver them conjured up through the utterance of a magical formula known as an SDZ. Despite much media flatulence about the major regeneration happening in the Docklands (usually attributed to the presence of the ever shiney tech sector) this SDZ term is bandied about with little explanation. Plainly put in the legislative language that birthed the whole thing, it’s an area “where, in the opinion of the Government, specified development is of economic or social importance to the State.”
Whatever about recent talk of 3,000 houses, when it comes to the whole Docklands area we’re talking about a legally mounted framework that represents the state’s geo-spatial desire to attract financial and tech capital to the city of Dublin. Secondary of course to this, is a huge array of knock ons as our lived environment and culture gets reshaped in the aftermath of this game of corporate seduction. Just think of the ratcheted up recovery rhetoric and rents that drove even Paypal Ireland boss Louise Phelan to complain.
On the surface, nothing signifies our courting of international capital more than a grinning Enda Kenny ringing the NASDAQ bell at the Web Summit alongside its founder Paddy Cosgrave. This astonishing piece of marketing was digitally bounced to the iconic sign in the heart of Times Square and broadcast into the NASDAQ studio itself. It perfectly surmised the state’s foreign direct investment strategy in recent years, just as the Web Summit fecking off tempered it for the cynics.
If a place like the Digital Hub in the south inner city, was a planned intervention by state actors to attract tech companies, then the successful haul of big fish like Facebook and Google led to the unplanned development of a digital cluster desperate for office space in the south Docklands area of the city. The state had to start learning the art of accommodation.
Cian O’Callaghan works in Maynooth Geography Department and looks at the intersection between industry and how the city structures itself to attract investment. Referring to the firms setting up in the South Docklands area he said:
“This grouping seems to have developed without a formal policy targeting the area as a tech hub. However, since the grouping has developed, the IDA, NAMA, and others have influenced urban policies such as the Strategic Development Zone in Docklands to continue to make the area attractive to international tech companies. So far, this has mostly been about fast-tracking the delivery of ‘Grade A’ office space, rather than about necessarily catering to the employees of the companies.”
Let’s take a glimpse into some of the forces driving older SDZ’s like those in the North Lotts and Grand Canal Dock, two other planning schemes approved in 2014. Dublin City Council explicitly set out their higher level working themes by citing how:
“Google and Facebook not only employ thousands of people but have put the Docklands on the international map. The Docklands SDZ area is ideally placed to promote for the full range of international, national, and local enterprise, by virtue of the variety of sites available, the proximity to the city centre, a unique waterfront setting, and the potential for collaboration with employers in the area.”
The announcement of the Poolbeg West SDZ is just the latest in a line of these regeneration projects on speed. The upshot of this is excited talk of a new city on the Liffey, with plans announced for 3,000 homes on the glass bottle site as part of the Poolbeg SDZ being the latest bait for coverage generous to the regime in the middle of a housing crisis.
However, the lack of any firm commitment to actual affordable housing as part of the scheme leaves residents of Ringsend and Irishtown feeling like they are being pushed out. As one Ringsender involved in local organising said:
“For too long we have been a dumping ground for Dublin and DCC (waste treatment plant, incinerator, Docks) and so on. Then in come Google and Facebook, no local jobs, house prices going through the roof, crazy rents all our young people forced out of our community our village is disappearing.”
Poolbeg West is not the first SDZ in the city. Back in May 2013, DCC and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority held a conference on the future of docklands with the tagline of “a community for all.”
It was described as “a core component of the SDZ consultation process” for the area. Rather ironically, given that cuddly conference title, Dr Andrew MacLaran of Trinity College Dublin completely slammed the whole SDZ for having precisely the opposite effect.
“So, we have this fast tracking of development – one of which is in front of you now – which in my view will remove the rights of third party appeal from anybody,” he said at the time.
“Therefore the very delineation of this Strategic Development Zone is problematic to me,” continued Dr MacLaran, “because it zones out Sheriff Street, East Wall, Ringsend and Pearse Street”.
Elsewhere MacLaran has gone as far as to call the Docklands site a delimitation, “clearly gerrymandered to exclude concentrations of poor indigenous Docklands residents.”
Extreme language. Having now retired from Trinity college, I reached out to MacLaran to see if his opinions had changed in the three years since the conference.
“I would not change anything in the presentation. If anything, had I had more time, I would have included more examples and greater detail of how working-class communities have been poorly treated in comparison to the feather-bedding of business and property capital.”
“It’s not just the tech sector though. If you look at the take-up of space in the docklands over the years, legal, financial and other business services have been very important. The high-tech sector just happens to be the flavour of the month.”
The back story to the Glass Bottle site at the centre of this new SDZ is one of those pillars of Celtic Tiger madness. It was bought for €412 million in 2006 by a Bernard McNamara led consortium with the state’s Docklands Development Authority putting in a 26% stake. Fast forward to 2011 and the whole thing was valued at €45 million. If there was a reward for the biggest clusterfuck taken over by NAMA this was in sharp contention.
Against the busy hum of the Roasted Bean Cafe on Talbot St, architect and activist Mark Price told me how “alarm bells immediately went off” when he’d heard of Coveney’s announcement.
He’d just spent the previous Sunday involved in a protest meeting organised by The Irish Glass Bottle Site Housing Action Group. The local residents were demanding that 100% of the Glass Bottle site houses be social, Mark went on to explain how the state was involved in an ideologically driven fire sale of its own assets as owned through NAMA to huge international financial institutions.
“A key element of all of this is the use of development land, part of the nation’s assets which can be flipped by the government thanks to the financial crisis and NAMA. These are state assets which we can cash out on really quickly.”
The state is desperate to attract capital to regenerate distressed assets in the city and bulk up its GDP figure. And at the moment these are in and around the hot bellies of our international technological hinterlands, with all their cries for better accommodation and office space.
To understand this and one reason why NAMA might be driven to sell off rather than try answer these demands itself, you can turn to the words of Ruth Coppinger who recently told the Dail Committee on Housing and Homelessness:
“The brief of NAMA is run along profit lines, bailing out developers and getting loans repaid for the state. However, if its brief was changed, it has enough land already zoned and, if emergency legislation was introduced, we could build houses quite quickly on it.”
It’s damn hard to discern anything too exact on how all these houses are going to come about. Even if NAMA were to get down and dirty and build the units themselves, a look at the residential portfolio of gaffs it boasts about on its website might give some inference of what we can expect. It deals in developments in places like Honeypark in Dun Laoghaire and marketed at €670,000, Malahide’s Coill Dub fetches €445,000 or there’s the “absolute luxury” ones at Hazel Brooke Square in Churchtown for anywhere between €450,000 to €695,000. This is hardly houses for the people is it? NAMA after all is profit driven.
“The SDZ in conjunction with NAMA is a blueprint for being ridden roughshod,” ex-Trinity professer MacLaran says, “I would also say that if you sup with the devil, use a very long spoon”.
So, who is this devil? Well, there’s a number of ways NAMA can deliver on its residential programme, one of these includes working with debtors on commercially viable jobs or the outright sale of sites for development. Or as it’s December SDZ and Residential Delivery update put it “NAMA may enter into joint ventures with other credible, well-capitalised platforms to develop sites”.
Project Wave might be a good insight into that route, whereby a 2.2 hectare site on North Wall Quay is being developed. NAMA keep a freehold lease on it but a subsidary of Singapore’s Oxley Holdings Ltd put up the dosh to develop it alongside Seán Mulryan’s Ballymore Properties. Oxley Holdings specialises in clients described as “young and trendy home buyers and entrepreneurs who value quality living and a finer lifestyle” and is lead by a former cop struggling to throw off his image as “the shoebox king” back home.
Nothing symbolizes the potent power of this reshaping of the city than the phenomenon of wiping out older, locally held places names in favor of one’s dreamed up in the marketing departments of such regeneration schemes.
This rebranding of the map is evident on a quick scan of some of the websites of those leading out in the so-called Silicon Docklands. For one there’s that much talked about new SOBO district based on Windmill Lane and Sir John Rogerson’s Quay.
Unfortunately, our media giddily goes along with this. Take for example RTÉ news reporting on the rezoning of the Glass Bottle site in Ringsend, when they opted for the development led term Poolbeg West rather than just plainly stating it was in Ringsend. Something which is pissing locals off no end.
For Mark Price who works teaching drawing to students out in UCD’s School of Architecture, this plays itself out in even the style of buildings being developed.
“You can see very much with the kind of architecture, the kind of housing, the kind of buildings. Just the very style of this stuff, its hermetically sealed looking stuff. It doesn’t meet the street at all. Talking of a social mix in the glass bottle site in Ringsend is complete bullshit and completely disingenuous, what does that mean? How would 90% of tech workers or whoever else it’s going to be, the unaffordable 90%, how are they going to be mixing?”
If a new city is being built on the Liffey, the next obvious question is for whom?