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For 14 of the 18 years that Clare Smart has lived in Mill Street in the Liberties, she has worked as a midwife in the Coombe Hospital.
From the hospital theatre, she can see a huge overgrown field out the back, surrounded by barbed wire. She’s never seen this HSE land used for anything, she says, over the sound of her kids playing, in her living room last Wednesday afternoon.
Nearby, too, work is finishing up on the New Mill student accommodation complex. This time last year, Smart was on maternity leave. It was noisy. The drilling was loud.
But the green space in the student housing project, too, may soon be permanently off limits to the community, if an application to gate it off is approved by Dublin City Council.
The council has had a plan to green the Liberties since 2015, which it has partly rolled out – with Weaver Park on Cork Street now open, and plans for Bridgefoot Street Park advancing.
Some worry, though, that gains in green spaces might be lost, and point to closed spaces that could still be opened up to the wider public.
In 2015, An Bord Pleanála granted permission for the 406-bed brownstone and glass complex. But with conditions.
Among them: “The management scheme shall undertake to ensure that the courtyard is publicly accessible daily during the hours of daylight,” the decision says.
The council has issued an enforcement order to violating this condition. Last week the gates were shut.
It was hard to see past them to beyond the bike racks at the back, where a small patch of grass and the side of a tree are visible.
Just over three weeks ago, the operators, GSA Developments, applied for a change of use, asking for the courtyard to be permanently closed to the public.
A spokesperson for Uninest, the company managing the New Mill complex, didn’t reply to queries as to why it was seeking to close the courtyard to the public, whether there were plans to open it in the future, or how they might respond to concerns from local residents that gates create a divide between students and others in local communities.
In the application, though, it says that GSA is responsible for the security of students during term time, and tourists at other times. A review of its security operations found it should be gated.
“They say it’s for security. They want to close it off permanently,” says Michael Pidgeon, a Green Party local-election candidate for the south-west inner-city. “There’s no community benefit. It makes a mockery of planning,” he says.
Says Smart: “What I read on the planning permission was that the student community would integrate with the community. Big metal gates don’t look like integration.”
Despite the Liberties Greening Strategy, residents like Smart still say there isn’t much green space in the Liberties.
There has been progress, though, on peppering the Liberties with more green spaces.
Weaver Park off Chamber Street and Cork Street opened last year. And the planned Bridgefoot Street Park is going to tender soon, says Stephen Coyne, a programme manager at the Liberties Business Area Improvement Initiative, a group backed by the council.
Coyne says a new project – the Cork Street Greening Strategy – will aim to improve cycling conditions and increase tree-planting along Cork Street, in particular. It’s at the commissioning stage for a study right now.
“It would allow us to have smaller projects,” Coyne said, rather than changing “the make-up of the entire street”.
But the allotments off Weaver Square, near the park, will be wound up by the end of the year, and the plan to move them to another site north of Chambers Street also won’t go ahead, as both sites are now earmarked for housing developments.
“The area historically never had large amounts of green space, so it’s difficult to put them in,” Coyne says.
The patch that Smart gazes out on from work doesn’t come under the greening plan for the area.
But other sites in the area – like the Weir Home with the Quaker burial ground, and Brú Chaoimhin hospital, all along Cork Street, do. Coyne says that opening them up to the public could disturb the privacy of the residents there.
Across the street from Brú Chaoimhin, the James Weir Home for nurses is a long, red-brick building, running perpendicular to Cork Street. Its large grounds are a little smaller than Weaver Park, and are the site of a former Quaker burial ground. Though the gates are usually open, signs on the large stone walls indicate that it’s private property.
“Right now, the HSE use the Weir Home for mental health, and they want a degree of privacy, rather than a park,” he says. It’s the same with Brú Chaoimhin, which is used as a nursing home.
“But we can improve the boundaries; make it [the land] look better,” he says. Right now, it’s surrounded by barbed wire. And it will open discussions on making the lands a better asset for the community, he said.
Cara Ní Fhearraigh has lived in the Tenters area for two years, and also put in an objection to the change of use planning application. Like Smart, she’s used to the sound and dust of construction nearby.
“There’s been a huge influx in building. Hotels, student accommodation. I understand that it’s all part of progress, but one of the concerns is, when this building happens, residents end up living in a dust storm,” she says.
At the end of it, she says, people expected to have access to the green space. It’s no bigger than nearby Oscar Traynor Square, a small park.
“But that’s used so much by the community. And it would be a shortcut too. But the minute construction was finished, they erected these huge gates,” she says.
“It’s really important that we don’t allow this to become the norm. That you can build, make a commitment, and renege.”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 17 October at 13.23, to clarify which sites come under the greening strategy. Apologies for the error.]