Soon, Dublin City Council is going to ask you what you think of a “new” draft scheme it’s drawn up for O’Connell Street.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t chime in on what you think the future of the street and surrounding area should look like and, in particular, what kinds of shops you’d like to see discouraged.
Because, as in the past scheme, that’s the main issue at play here: the council still wants to bring in more higher-end retail and uses, and make more use of upper floors and basements.
What’s a Special Planning Control Scheme, Anyways?
Just to recap: a “special planning control scheme” is a plan to try to make sure areas with striking architecture or that are of key historical, cultural, or social importance, have appropriate uses.
For the O’Connell Street area, that covers all of the main boulevard, up to Parnell Street in the north, Malborough Street in the east, and Moore Street to the west. It also spills over to south of the river, bringing in D’Olier Street and Westmoreland Street.
How Restrictive Should It Be?
Despite what you might read, not everybody thinks that O’Connell Street and environs is a kip.
It’s fine, said Sheila Maurimootoo on a recent Monday, from inside The Rolling Donut stand where she works. “I live nearby, my job place is here, and there’s plenty of business.”
Over the road and onto Henry Street, at Direction menswear, where you can pick up a suit for €50, Kevin Rooney is sat behind the counter. He thinks the area is alright too, and seems suspicious of any talk of higher-end retail.
“They want to get rid of little stores like us,” he said, adding that his chain had five outlets before the recession and that the one he’s sitting in is the last one left.
He gestures over the road to where there’s a shuttered shop. “Getting people in there would be good,” he says.
As in the past, the new draft scheme lists uses that would not be granted planning permission at ground level, such as fast-food outlets, bookmakers, newsagents and internet cafes. And it also lists those which would be considered, but not particularly favoured, such as pharmacies or charity shops.
It’s the last of these that Workers’ Party Dublin city councillor Eilis Ryan has queried. Charity shops will not favoured, but high-street clothes shops will be, she points out.
“They’re selling the same products. I don’t see the difference apart from the fact that one is more expensive,” she said.
That said, there are restrictions that she is happy to see included, like those on the sale of alcohol in the area. “But I do think it’s a balance between, you know, making sure the area is aesthetically pleasing, that there are long-term businesses as opposed to pop-up shops, and also ensuring that the area is actually catering to the needs of the people in the area,” Ryan said.
Some councillors believe that any concerns about too many posh shops are premature. “I don’t think there’s much fear of that,” said Labour Dublin city councillor Andrew Montague.
At Wings restaurant on Monday, towards the northern end of O’Connell Street, Jon Lin says she wouldn’t mind seeing a few more “fancy food” places. To attract people to the area for a “nice sit-down meal”, she said.
As in the 2009 scheme, the new draft highlights the importance of businesses like Eason, the Gresham Hotel, and the currently closed Clerys. And it repeats that it is council policy to encourage the protection of the existing or last use of special premises like those.
There’s an added clause in the new scheme, though, that notes how changes in the retail environment might mean there are calls for changes in the retail format and layout of some historic stores.
In the case of such proposals “the primary objective will be to attract uses and formats that will contribute to the development of a strong and competitive retail sector on O’Connell Street and the restoration of the street as the principal civic thoroughfare of the city and a major shopping destination.”
Councillor Ryan said she wondered if that was a nod towards a potential application from Natrium Ltd to change the interior of the Clerys store.
That’s unclear, but a spokesperson from the Dublin City Council press office said: “Dublin City Council Planning Department have not met with Natrium in relation to the Draft Area of Special Planning Control for O’Connell Street.”
While some councillors questioned whether you can have both conservation and a thriving business district, Green Party Dublin city councillor Ciaran Cuffe thinks the two are far from mutually exclusive. Look what H&M have done with their Dame Street store, he noted.
Making It Happen
All these plans are grand. But in the last six years, under the last almost-identical scheme, there don’t seem to have been dramatic changes to uses of buildings in the O’Connell Street area.
There’s been a recession, of course. But another reason might be that there’s not a awful lot that the planners can do, in a proactive manner.
“Often with planning, we can set down what will be allowed to happen if somebody puts in for a new planning application, but we cannot force somebody to do something with the property that they have now,” says Labour Dublin city councillor Andrew Montague.
With an uptick in the economy, and some developments in the area, things might change more over the coming six years.
The street will have to stagger through the next couple of years, while it’s ripped up by engineers for the Luas Cross City works. But once the Luas is in place, it will make it easier for people to journey in, which will be great news for the city centre, says Cuffe.
Also, at the north end of the street, in the further future, the planned Parnell Square library might lure more visitors.
More immediately, though, some of the finer points of planning enforcement on O’Connell Street need attention, says Cuffe.
Last week, Cuffe was travelling down O’Connell Street when he saw a big mobile phone advertisement, hanging across one of the buildings. He sent in a complaint to Dublin City Council but thinks that somebody other than him should also notice these planning violations.
“We can have all the documents we want,” said Cuffe. “But we need to have action on the ground.”
UPDATE: This post was updated on 16 Oct at 16.39 to include a link to the new draft scheme.