In mid-November, the South Inner City area that runs between the Seán O’Casey and Samuel Beckett bridges, bounded by Pearse Street and the quays, underwent something of a rebranding online.
A marketing campaign, website, and social-media profiles were launched, which coined a new moniker for the area: “SOBO” (South of Beckett O’Casey).
The area is “on the cusp of an exciting revival”, the website says. There are pictures of glass-fronted office blocks and some of the area’s new, professional workforce.
SOBO was “being heralded as the new creative and industrial quarter”, read a news piece on Independent.ie. An article on Lovin’ Dublin, meanwhile, denounced it as “a horrible, cynical ploy to inflate property values”, saying that “PR companies don’t get to name parts of cities”.
The area in question is one of the most starkly unequal in Ireland, with shiny new Silicon Docks thriving right next to a disadvantaged inner-city neighbourhood, millions of euro in international investment pouring into new offices that are unlikely to employ any of their neighbours.
Perhaps inevitably, tensions seem to be simmering between the old community and the developers who want to rename the area, rebrand it and rebuild it.
What Is SOBO?
SOBO is centred on a quartet of properties. All four are owned by Hibernia REIT, a “property investment company”.
Two of them are existing buildings: the Hanover Building and the Observatory.
The other two are sites that are supposed to be developed into offices, with some retail and commercial space, and – in one of case – a number of flats. They spread over 1-6 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, and 1-2 Windmill Lane, former home of the recording studio where over the years U2, Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor and the Rolling Stones all played.
A November 2015 press release said that Hibernia was seeking to gain rents of over €55 per square foot on the sites, easily putting them among the highest in the city.
SOBO is about “giving [the area] a coherence and identity which will stimulate interest and investment, and help deliver an improved public realm and range of services for all working and living in the area,” said a spokesperson for Hibernia REIT.
The contrast between this area, and elsewhere in the docklands is obvious.
To the west are the high-rise Ulster Bank headquarters and the International Financial Services Centre. Further east, down the south quays, are the results of recent years’ intense building in the Special Development Zone, and offices along the quay-front.
Between the O’Casey and Beckett bridges, however, things look somewhat different. The area is lower-rise, with a straggle of vacant sites, the buildings are older, and instead of offices and commercial space, there are terraced houses and flats.
Hibernia REIT is a fast-growing player in the post-crash property market.
REITs are real estate investment trusts: publicly listed property companies that are exempt from corporation tax once certain conditions are adhered to.
They already existed in other countries in 2013, when the Dáil passed legislation allowing them to be established in Ireland. Among the aims was to attract foreign investment in property, and to reduce the risk to individual shareholders in the event of another property crash.
According to the company’s annual report last May, of Hibernia REIT’s 10 largest shareholders, owning 45.5 percent of the company between them, nine were indeed based abroad. (The tenth, Goodbody stockbrokers which was listed as owning 2.89 percent, is based in Ireland.)
Hibernia bought the Windmill Lane site in 2014 for €7.5 million, with Starwood Capital, the previous owners, granted an option to regain a 50:50 split, which they exercised last year.
The site on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay is notable for its 103-year-old façade, which is to be retained. Urbanest, a student-accommodation company, acquired it from NAMA in 2013 for €7.5 million, but was subsequently refused permission to put a block of student flats there.
Hibernia acquired the property from Urbanest in August of 2014 for €17.75 million. The sale drew attention at the time, owing to the sharp difference between what Urbanest paid for the building, and what they sold it for not long afterwards.
Both the Windmill Lane site and the Sir John Rogerson’s Quay site came to Hibernia with pre-existing planning permission for large-scale developments.
Hibernia acquired the Hanover Building and the Observatory in the summer of 2014, bringing the total amount it had invested in the area to nearly €98 million.
Leaflets distributed to local residents in the early phase of the Windmill Lane development described the creation of a new “Windmill Quarter”, a branding idea that evidently preceded the broader idea of SOBO.
Aside from the four properties directly involved in SOBO, the district as it stands remains largely residential. It is also among the country’s most unequal.
Pearse House, facing the entrance of the Windmill Lane site, is the largest block of public housing in the Republic. In 2011, it ranked among the most disadvantaged areas on the island of Ireland, according to the All-Ireland Research Observatory (AIRO). Male unemployment was in excess of 35 percent (double the national average), while the number of people with “low education” stood as high as 71 percent.
The Water Garden Apartments meanwhile, on the other side of Erne Street, ranked among the most affluent areas on the island.
What About City Quay?
That juxtaposition is problematic.
Residents’ groups in the area have been voicing concern about the perceived disconnect between the newer developments, and the longstanding communities already in the area.
“They’ve ignored the fact that there is a very old parish called City Quay parish, which has a huge community,” said William Finnie, chairman of the Creighton Street Residents’ Association. “The parish is about 150 years old and certainly there are people that are living in the parish for getting on 100 years.”
Much of Creighton Street is a designated conservation area, Finnie said. “They’ve completely ignored that; you never see the words City Quay or Creighton Street [in the marketing material] . . . this development has totally wrecked it. We’ve done our best to try and mitigate the worst of the design.”
Some of the terraced houses on Creighton Street date to the 1870s, and eight are designated as Z2 residential conservation areas.
Development in Z2 must “complement the character of the area”, according to the city development plan for 2011-2017. In objections to planning applications from Hibernia and previous owners of the sites, this condition is seen as being contravened by aspects of the development.
Across the road, on the east side of Creighton Street, the sites are zoned Z5, the objective here to “consolidate and facilitate the development of the central area, and to identify, reinforce and strengthen and protect its civic design character and dignity”.
Finnie said the main concerns of his neighbours involve the height of the new buildings and the drains. There is to be no step-back between the lower and upper floors of the Sir John Rogerson’s Quay development, which is to reach a height of 29.6 metres over six storeys, significantly higher than the nearby houses. Submissions to the council planning process have also questioned the location of an electricity substation on the eastern side of the street.
Finnie also raises other concerns: that the area has suffered from flooding in the past, and the large nature of the new developments, and the design of local drainage systems, increase the risk of a repeat. But Hibernia’s spokesperson said that extensive research had been carried out regards the drainage, and that the risk of localised flooding would, in fact, be reduced.
Paul Robinson, from a sub-committee of residents in Pearse House affected by the development, said similar concerns were raised about the potential volatility of a subterranean fuel tank remaining from a previous business. He claimed that the company seemed unaware of the tank until it was discovered.
The Hibernia spokespersons said that the tank “never posed any danger as it contained no fuel”, and that some anxieties were being blown out of proportion.
A Strained Relationship
Many people contacted stated that the opposition is not to the development per se, but rather with certain specifics of the plans, and how the work is being carried out.
Finnie accepts that the site will be developed at some point, and says: “We aren’t Luddites.” He said people wouldn’t mind if the building went higher, to compensate for a step back from the street being made on the upper floors.
Some concerns were raised on behalf of residents regarding the interaction between the developers and the community.
Robinson said that Pearse House residents initially weren’t invited to a consultation meeting, and it was only when somebody from the flats happened upon it by chance that a subsequent meeting, which he described as “hostile”, was organised.
The PR campaign, he said, is being pursued on the premise that Hibernia have “pacified the locals”, but the atmosphere at times has been far from amicable.
Hibernia’s spokesperson said that the consultation process, which has involved meetings and the appointment of two community liaison officers, has provided “constructive forums for debate”, and not hostility.
Residents also say that a number of assurances they were given by Hibernia have been ignored or flouted by the builders on site.
Promised street sweeping and window cleaning have either ceased, or were never begun. Work has continued on occasion until 10:30pm, with locals who work nights, for example, suffering from the noise.
An assurance that only one truck at a time would enter or leave the site seems to have been bypassed on occasion, and Robinson produced pictures of at least five trucks on the street by the site entrance at a single time. Residents say they are worried about the possibility of a traffic accident.
We contacted John Paul Construction, which is working on the site, and they referred all questions to Hibernia.
Robinson, Finnie, and Jim Hargis, job centre manager of the nearby St Andrew’s Resource Centre, all mentioned the lack of local labour on the project.
Unlike developments inside the SDZ, few or no local people have been employed on the building sites, despite the large supply of available labour, they say.
Robinson said that “not a single person has gotten a job”, while Hargis stated that the entirely private nature of the developments allowed for fewer employment opportunities than at sites inside the SDZ.
In June, a picket took place at the entrance to Windmill Lane. After three weeks, the protest ended after apparent threats of legal action from the developers. Hibernia’s spokesperson said that legal action is only ever an option of last resort.
Recently, the idea of another protest has been floated. A letter sent to John Paul Construction on 12 January stated that residents “have been extremely patient up to now”, but that “this may not be the case in the future if these complaints are not addressed”.
Hibernia has responded to these concerns by outlining the positive aspects of the developments, and the extensive community interactions which have taken place as a part of it.
“Great effort has been made to keep local residents aware of any late working,” said a spokesperson, while promises relating to cleaning of windows and roads “have been adhered to”.
They said, furthermore, that they have been in direct liaison with St Andrews on the subject of local employment since July of last year. There has been investment from Hibernia in local community projects, and a meeting on Monday produced a series of compromises on some of the demands and grievances.
Frequent meetings with residents are planned to prevent any unnecessary flaring of tensions in the locality, he said.
What Will SOBO Mean Long-term?
In a larger sense though, aside from the actual buildings going up, there’s still the question of what exactly SOBO will mean for the wider area.
Is SOBO just about the buildings that Hibernia hopes to rent out? Or is it about a re-engineering of the personality of a neighbourhood?
As Hibernia REIT pitch it, the developments will be a boon.
The area “will benefit from the vibrancy that will come with more people living and working in the area” as more valuable tech and creative industries are attracted, although, their spokesperson said, “changes will take time and cannot be forced”. They emphasise the creation of an “attractive shared public realm”, and the “revitalisation of neglected parts of the city” with the project.
But Independent Dublin city councillor Mannix Flynn disagrees, and sees in the scheme, which is separate from anything undertaken by the council, potential for “the erosion of traditional communities”.
The area risks turning into one “occupied by a consortium . . . a business campus, or a factory floor”, he says. And a marketing campaign so at odds with the area’s apparent character “creates invisible gates within the public arena . . . it’s the juxtaposition of short cocktails with a pint of plain.”
Local councillor Dermot Lacey of Labour also noted the lack of council recognition of the scheme, and said that the scale of private, as opposed to public, involvement in the regeneration of the area was more than he would have liked.
But compromises are always necessary, he said, when it comes to urban development, and neither residents nor developers are ever likely to get absolutely everything they want.
“What’s happened over the last fifteen, seventeen years, has been pretty traumatic for this area,” said Hargis, referring both to the huge population explosion and the changing face of industry in the south docklands as a whole.
“There used to be a lot of warehouses and old garages over there [Grand Canal Basin] . . . small companies, two-people companies, very handy for us because we got local people into those companies, even in difficult times,” he said. “Now what we’ve got are barrister jobs, accountant jobs, and the people around here aren’t working there.”
The character of the docklands has fundamentally changed, but Hargis said the community is resilient, and well used by now to the fast pace of change. Locals have seen rebranding efforts before.
SOBO, Hargis said, is “the invention of a marketing company, or an estate agent. I don’t think it’s going to catch on, personally. People know this area as either Pearse Street or docklands. We tried rebranding the area once as Pearse Village, and I don’t think that’s going to catch on either.”