Photo by Cónal Thomas

The old Kilmainham Mills has been deteriorating for decades, despite attempts by some locals to save it and turn it into a heritage site.

Three weeks ago, Dublin City Council issued an endangerment notice on it (more on that later), but some councillors felt that didn’t go far enough.

People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh is now trying to rezone the land surrounding the mills, to prevent any large-scale development around the historic building.

“There is nothing to stop a developer building even inside the old stone walls,” she says. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent.”

Boom to Bust

Spread over more than 3,000 square metres, Kilmainham Mills lies along the Camac River, down the road from Kilmainham Gaol and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It has a history that goes back to the 16th century.

Damien Shine – who lives on the site as de facto caretaker – tried to build 48 apartments on the site in 2005. But that plan didn’t take off.

The economy tanked later that decade. The site ended up on a 2011 list of National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) properties.

In 2013, Dublin City Council teamed up with Kilmainham Mills Ltd, a company that had been set up by Kilmainham local Maurice Coen, to bargain with NAMA and save the property. That didn’t work either.

In October 2016, Dublin City Council Area Manager Peter Finnegan wrote to councillors to tell them that the mill was being sold.

“Unfortunately we have been told that a private residential developer has sale agreed with the current receiver Grant Thornton on Kilmainham Mill,” said Finnegan, in an email.

Some see that as a sign that there might be moves to develop the site soon.

Best Practice

Kilmainham Mills is already on the council’s record of protected structures, which limits what alterations an owner can make to a property.

The recent endangerment notice recommends certain works be carried out on the property: repairs and clearing overgrown vegetation. But MacVeigh wants the land around the structure protected too.

The current zoning of the site surrounding Kilmainham Mills is a cause for concern, she says, because there’s nothing to stop a developer building a proliferation of offices, apartments or retail units there.

Dublin City Council zones every parcel of land across the city, thereby setting rules for what it can be used for. If it’s Z3 land, for example, it means the land has to be used to provide and improve neighbourhood facilities.

MacVeigh wants to rezone the Kilmainham Mills site to make it Z8 land. It’s currently a mixture of Z1, Z2, Z3 and Z6, she says.

Under Z8 zoning, land uses have to protect “the existing architectural and civic design character, to allow only for limited expansion consistent with the conservation objective”, according to the city’s development plan.

But there is a problem with MacVeigh’s proposal. Or two.

At a meeting of the council’s South Central Area Committee on 14 November, Assistant Chief Executive Vincent Norton said that Z8 only applies to Georgian structures. A Z8 zoning for Kilmainham Mills would “be totally inappropriate”, said Norton.

Also, councillors can’t initiate a change in zoning, said Norton. That power lies with the council’s executive.

Nevertheless, councillors at the meeting passed MacVeigh’s motion, which is expected to come before the full council at its monthly meeting next week. The planning department is due to draw up a report on the matter of rezoning.

MacVeigh’s push to have Kilmainham Mills rezoned, she says, is so that the wider public could then have their say on the site’s future.

Looking Ahead

Michael O’Flanagan, who heads up the Save Kilmainham Mills campaign, which aims to see it restored for heritage use, says he thinks it won’t be long until the site is redeveloped.

So MacVeigh’s move to rezone the site is timely, he says. O’Flanagan also believes that a planning application may not be far off.

In an email in October last year, Finnegan told councillors the sale of the site had been agreed, but that it hadn’t gone through yet.

“The fact that the loan would appear to be back in Irish hands might work to our advantage in securing this important historical and community asset,” he said.

“It would of course be better if DCC had ownership and therefore protection of the site,” he said.

Finnegan pointed out that because it is currently zoned for residential use (so for homes or apartments), the council assumed the developer would be looking to build a residential development there.

But the prospective buyer had been advised, by way of their agent, that this would more than likely be opposed by the local community and, possibly, the council’s planning department, said Finnegan in the email.

“I believe this is a time to be extra vigilant and to examine every avenue to ensure that the nation, the city and the community does not lose this important Mill and that the unique heritage it represents is transformed not into housing but rather into a community and creative asset,” Finnegan said.

A Dublin City Council spokesperson said they couldn’t confirm who the developer is, and Grant Thornton didn’t get back to a couple of phone calls.

O’Flanagan says he is in the dark, too. “The individual hasn’t been revealed to us,” he says. But as he sees it, time is of the essence.

“Now it’s no longer just a question of the loans being transferred,” says O’Flanagan. “It’s the physical mill itself.”

A Different Tactic

Some other councillors say MacVeigh’s effort to rezone the land isn’t the right move, and would prefer it if  Dublin City Council issued a compulsory purchase order (CPO) to buy the site.

Kilmainham Mills sits smack-bang in the middle of a desirable housing area, says Sinn Féin Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh.

“Even though we’re talking about rezoning, my fear is that rezoning is such a long process,” she says. “I would prefer to know that nothing can happen there until the council have the resources to CPO the site.”

But the council is generally reluctant to issue CPOs, she says.

To rezone the site, as MacVeigh proposes, what is known as a “material alteration” to the city’s Development Plan also has to happen. That would mean a public consultation, which MacVeigh sees as an opportunity.

“People would be asked to submit, then,” she says. “It seeks the opinion of, not just the public and the local community, but organisations like An Tasice.”

Because the locals want the site preserved for heritage purposes, it might make the council clamp down on what might eventually be built there, she says.

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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