It’s 13 years since the yellow-brick Player Wills factory on South Circular Road was used to make cigarettes.
In 2006 Players Square Ltd applied for and received planning permission to develop the site, putting in 11 buildings ranging from one storey to 11 storeys, housing everything from offices and shops to a school and a creche, plus 484 apartments.
Loans for the site fell into the hands of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) in 2010. And when the company applied to extend the permission in 2013, council planners said no. The city’s development plan had changed by then and the scheme didn’t fit with it, planning documents show.
So it’s just been sitting there vacant and derelict. Local Labour Councillor Rebecca Moynihan says the Player Wills site, along with vacant lands around it, make up one of the last major sites available for development in the city.
A motion of hers was passed recently calling on the council to get the site and and use it for cost-rental and affordable-to-buy homes.
“I would like to see owner occupiers and people who would be there for a long time,” she says. “And not have a situation occurring where properties that are developed there are bought and leased back out, on short-term lets, to the benefit of private owners.”
But Moynihan believes this would require negotiations between the council and NAMA. “The reality is that [Dublin City Council] wouldn’t have the money,” she said. The site’s on the council’s Vacant Sites Register, valued in August 2017 at €23.8 million.
Moynihan has started to organise meetings in the area to talk to the local community about the site, and to get them involved so they get a say in what goes on the site too. But as the site rises in value, plans for it may be changing.
The Bigger Picture
The Player Wills site is “an area of land that is proposed to contain developments of economic or social importance to the state”, the city’s development plan says.
That area also draws in other patches of land: the Bailey Gibson industrial site out back of the Player Wills site, and the former flats of St. Teresa’s Gardens.
The lands cover a massive 9.33 hectares. (The Coombe Hospital lands are there, too, but are not available for development right now so aren’t counted in this figure.)
The council said it wanted to develop “a network of streets and public spaces” that would “ensure the physical, social and economic integration of St. Teresa’s Gardens with the former Player Wills and Bailey Gibson sites”.
This is according to the council’s 2017 development framework for the area, which it calls “Strategic Development and Regeneration Area 12”.
All development “within a Strategic Development Site would need to comply with DCC’s development plan”, says a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.
The council wanted to make sure there is proper “permeability of the site” so that people who are walking around the neighbourhood can cut through different areas, rather than having to walk along the boundaries of big blocks.
The council’s 2017 development framework said it expected there to be 510 homes on the “NAMA-controlled lands”. But that would depend on the developer’s plans.
The site is owned by Players Square Limited, comprised of Glandrose Investments, Bee Bee Developments and Patrick Anthony Veale. That company is in receivership, with the receiver listed as “Paul McCann and Stephen Tennant”. And the loans are held by NAMA.
Moynihan is clear about what she wants, and doesn’t want, to see on the site. “We want it to be sustainable housing on the site, not the latest fad in development, which is student accommodation and hotels,” she says. “We want something to be put on the site that benefits the city, and delivers for the community.”
J.J. O’Mahony, a local resident who also works as facilities chairperson for St. Kevin’s, the local camogie and hurling team, says NAMA should fulfill its social responsibilities. “They should engage with the local community as part of the discussions, even before going near any property developer,” he says.
At the September meeting of the South Central Area Committee, councillors backed Moynihan’s motion calling on the council to “initiate a discussion with the DHLG [Department of Housing and Local Government] and other government agencies to transfer the land on the Player Wills’ site on the South Circular Road for cost-rental and affordable housing to buy to be developed by DCC”.
Her party colleague, the TD Alan Kelly, asked NAMA Chief Executive Brendan McDonagh at the Public Accounts Committeefor assurance that the whatever happens on the site would comply with the council’s development plan for the area, and also would include cost-rental and affordable housing.
“The big problem that happened here is that land values have increased dramatically over the past twelve months,” said McDonagh. “So the valuation of the site has also gone up dramatically.”
Moynihan said that means that “debtors on the site are gaining in equity”. The original debtors could be in a situation to “buy out the loan again”, but they’ll still have a roadblock to developing it due to funding issues, she says.
That could mean a delay, said Deputy Seán Fleming of Fianna Fáil, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. The future owner of the Player Wills site may not be in a position to start building until 2020 or later.
The receiver then might “have a very different view on what can be achieved” from Dublin City Council, he said. McDonagh agreed.
For local resident O’Mahony, NAMA have an obligation to engage with the local community before “knocking on the doors of developers”.
He believes NAMA should be directed by its objective to contribute to the economic and social development of the state.
Independent TD Catherine Connolly asked the NAMA chief how many times was it had been directed by the Minister of Housing to use this provision for assets it controlled.
“Never,” said McDonagh.
Meetings and the future
Last week, around 70 people packed out a room at Donore Community Centre in Dublin 8.
Moynihan says the meeting touched on the history of the Player Wills site, the growth of student accommodation and hotels around the greater neighbourhood, and the council’s plans for the wider area.
Says O’Mahoney: “Social housing has to be a major consideration for the area”. There is also an “absolute dearth of green spaces in the area”.
O’Mahoney wants more than one football field, too. The team is using Templeogue Synge Street’s pitch on the Crumlin Road until a new pitch is done Donore Avenue.
But it’s not enough, he says. It impacts on health and obesity and crime, he says.
Listening to the community is key. But a stumbling block is “getting people to listen to us and realise that a community is there”, says Moynihan. “This is probably the biggest battle I’ve ever had.”