Who Should Be Allowed to Walk Through New Student Housing Complexes?

The baby-blue Nolan’s Seafood warehouse on the junction of Lower Grangegorman Road and Rathdown Road might soon be demolished and replaced by a large student-housing complex.

At least, that’s what will happen if an investment fund gets the nod and goes ahead. Next door, another block of student accommodation is being built.

At the moment, there are 6,500 purpose-built student beds in the inner-city, over half of which opened in the last 12 months, a recent council review found. Another 3,000 are being built.

Where does all this new student-housing construction leave Dublin City Council’s 2016 plan for the city’s core, which emphasised the importance of so-called “permeability” for reducing congestion, and making some parts of the city easier to access?

After all, big student-housing complexes are often gated, and offer no routes for pedestrians to cut through to get where they are going. They often have to walk the length of a complex’s fringes. That’s the opposite of permeability.

Balancing privacy, safety and permeability can be tough, say some councillors and planners.

But permeability is, “the essence of a city”, says retired Dublin City Council planner, Kieran Rose. “It’s in the interest of pedestrians. Big blocks only suit people with cars. Pedestrians like to wander.”

Through Routes

The Nolan’s site, where investment fund NTM ROI Seed Capital LP wants to put a 289-bed student-accommodation complex, is right around the corner from the Dublin Institute of Technology’s campus in Grangegorman.

It covers 4,300 square metres, bounded by the Grangegorman Luas stop to the east, another block of student accommodation to the north, a residential development to the south, and the back of Rathdown Road to the west.

Photo by Zuzia Whelan

It would have one pedestrian access route, the planning application says, with an upgrade of the access laneway from Rathdown Road.

The lane would remain publicly accessible, but the site of the development would not, as security is the developer’s main priority, says Tom Anderson, a partner at NTM.

Right now, the site is private and not “permeable” to the public. So this “does not reduce or diminish the current position enjoyed by the general public”, says Anderson. In other words, nothing would change. The proposed courtyard would be for residents only.

“We do not believe that it is practical for this site to be ‘permeable’ for members of the general public, without potentially lessening the security of our residents, which would always be our priority,” he said, by email.

John Downey, principal planner at Downey Planning & Architecture says that some approaches to student homes are better than others.

“You don’t want to build complexes that have a single point of entry into them and all the students come and go from one location […] creating their own compartmentalised living conditions with no real public interactions. Better to create living streets or area as opposed to gated developments,” Downey says.

“It is essential for a city to perform, have a sense of place and for that sense of place to interact with the city. Because gated developments simply do not work, and create an us-and-them barrier,” he says.

Downey says he and colleagues design schemes meant to integrate fully into the fabric of the street, and of the city, not “stand-alone parcels of development that are fenced off from the city”.

Architect Marcus Reid differs. He can see why well-maintained private spaces are desirable, he says. It’s up to the public to press the council for more public space.

The onus is on the council “to improve the permeability of existing public routes”, like access routes on the peripheries of new developments. “That’s the opportunity the council should be seizing,” says Reid.

“I don’t think there’s pressure on individual development blocks to develop permeability in the city,” Reid says. “I don’t see why student blocks should have any public dimension. They’re private residences.”

“People need their own space. They’re essentially paying for it in their rent. To remove that, makes almost everything a street,” he says.

Walking Around

Some of the council’s public-realm masterplan in 2016was based on the idea that there should be more smaller routes for pedestrians to cut through in the city centre – so that they didn’t find themselves face to face with walls or fences and having to walk the long way around.

“A permeable core encourages pedestrians and cyclists,” it says. It’s unclear how much progress has been made on that though.

Dublin City Council didn’t respond to queries on future plans to increase permeability and walkability in the city, and what progress has been made to put in routes through historic blocks, such as Trinity College, the Department of Education and Dublin Castle.

Or, even if new routes can’t be run through these existing big blocks, whether it would be possible to require new developments to be permeable.

Permeability “should be designed into a scheme so it’s easy to allow public access”, says Rose, the retired council planner. It would be a key planning principle.

Anderson, of NTM, says he can see the point of a right-of-way if a “hypothetical big block” were built over a current path taken by pedestrians, and they suddenly had to walk around.

But “the broad concept that student complexes need to have publicly accessible spaces needs to be balanced with the obligation of the operator to provide safe and secure facilities”, he says.

Neither the council nor An Bord Pleanála responded to queries about whether permeability is taken into account when they are looking at designs for new student accommodation.

Many new blocks of student accommodation or hotels are going up on what were derelict sites, says Social Democrats Councillor Gary Gannon. So the public didn’t have access anyway.

“It’s not like the community has lost space that was being used. But it would be nice if there was access to the space,” he says. These new developments are positive, he says. “It’s bringing people in.”

Student Villages

Permeability is about getting people to mix, says Sinn Féin Councillor Janice Boylan. “But certain people think, if there’s student accommodation coming in, there’ll be too much activity, so let them do their own thing.”

If students have their own spaces, should they be opened up? “It doesn’t happen in apartment blocks,” says Boylan, who also questions why should people be encouraged to go into spaces where others live.

Roisin Putti, an accommodation officer at Trinity College Students Union, lived in halls in off-site student accommodation in her first year.

She doesn’t think that development should be opened up. “It houses about 1,000 students, and has two courtyards,” says Putti. Many are first-year and international students who have moved out for the first time and one of parents’ main concerns is safety, she says.

Says Boylan: “If there were an easy way of facilitating that where you can walk through, then I would say, yeah.”

But residents in her area have expressed concerns about potential anti-social behaviour. “We need integration with different communities. But we need to make sure it’s well-lit and safe,” she says.

Rose says there are examples where it has worked, though. The Watkins Brewery site in Dublin 8 has public access, and actively encourages integration between students and the local community, he says.

The Binary Hub on Bonham Street in the same part of town has “an attractive pedestrian route going through it,” and “semi-public green spaces”, says Rose.

Others, like the New Mill accommodation on Mill Street, have closed-off inner courtyards, blocking public access and potential shortcuts.

Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam says spaces need to be more open, but that he is unsure how to do that.

“Who is going to be accessing this apart from students?” he says. Like Downey, the architect, his concern is that more “inward looking” developments can make it “them and us”.

Providing community facilities within a new development would help, he says. That way, it’s not just an access route but a place for mixing students and local residents.

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Zuzia Whelan: Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

Reader responses

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Anonymous commenter
at 7 November 2018 at 14:18

I currently work in Leeds, where there is a huge student population relative to the city as whole - by my reckoning, more than 10% of the population. The two big universities have a fair number of residences and there are some purpose built blocks as well. But what is entirely different from what is becoming the pattern in Dublin is that, in no case I've seen, are they the kind of gated and segregated developments that have sprung up where I spend the rest of my time in Grangegorman. Instead, they are mostly tower-blocks, in common with a city that feels very high-rise compared to home, and do not interfere with the street-scape by creating long blank impermeable walls.

Anonymous commenter
at 7 November 2018 at 18:23

This article is really missing a map.

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