The head of Hibernia REIT urged a Dublin City Council official to demolish a block of rundown social homes next to its property in the south Docklands as it, and another site, were “serious eyesores on the street”, according to emails.
Kevin Nowlan, Hibernia REIT’s CEO, suggested at different times either a joint venture with Dublin City Council to knock down the buildings and redevelop the public land, or to swap homes elsewhere for it.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said the council’s current plan is to demolish the building at St Andrew’s Court – which sits at the corner of Fenian Street and Sandwith Street in the south Docklands.
But that’s “to rebuild it at a higher density for social housing”, they said. “The new development will be entirely for social housing.”
A spokesperson for Hibernia REIT said, “We believed that there was scope to build an attractive development that would improve Fenian Street and lead to a net increase in the amount of social housing in the area.”
Hibernia REIT, a real estate investment trust established in late 2013, is a property developer with a Dublin portfolio, its website says “worth in excess of €1.3bn as at 30 September 2018” and specialising “in city centre offices”.
On Fenian Street
On Monday on Fenian Street, a white crane rises above a red brick multi-storey office building, striped with windows – formerly Cumberland House, but rebranded as 1 Cumberland Place.
Next door to Hibernia REIT’s towering office block is a council-owned building and squat senior citizens’ complex, St Andrew’s Court. A stretch on the ground floor is boarded up, and tagged with graffiti.
Nowlan, the CEO of Hibernia REIT, emailed Brendan Kenny on 6 January 2017, asking if he had time for a coffee, and noting that the REIT had recently refurbished Cumberland House, home to Twitter’s HQ.
“We are very interested in improving Fenian Street and have just got planning to build a new block at the front of Cumberland House,” the email says.
He asks if there are joint-venture opportunities on the council’s residential block on the corner of Fenian and Sandwith Street. “It appears to be only partially occupied with the site having significant increased density opportunity,” he writes.
“We may have some temporary or permanent relocation option in our Windmill lane apartments,” wrote Nowlan.
Two days later, Kenny wrote back. The housing block is a scheme for senior citizens called St Andrew’s Court, he said.
It used to be bedsits, but some of it was vacant as the council was moving people out to knock the bedsits together, to make bigger apartments, he said. (A 2016 council report notes plans to knock eight bedsits in one of the blocks into four apartments.)
“These plans are well advanced and planning permission has been granted,” wrote Kenny. “Therefore it is probably too late to change these plans and there is a lot of sensitivity and emotions around such accommodation.”
Kenny said it would be an opportunity to demolish and construct a more appropriate development with proper density and height. “But gone too far now,” he says – adding that he was happy to meet for coffee.
In May 2018, Nowlan emailed again: “Can we meet to discuss the apartments you own on the corner of Fenian Street and Sandwith Street.”
Hibernia REIT was about to start phase two of their Cumberland development, a six-storey 50,000 square foot office block also on Fenian Street.
“Your building and the adjoining sterilized site are now serious eyesores on the street,” he wrote.
He said that a year earlier Hibernia REIT had been happy to swap their Windmill Lane apartments “to allow for demolition of your block which no doubt if redeveloped could accommodation multiple units to what’s on it at the moment.”
“I know that opportunity is now gone but the building really does need to be demolished and replaced as it is dragging the quality of the street down,” the email says – adding he hopes Kenny has time to meet up.
Kenny wrote back that he was “happy to meet up with you to discuss this”.
On 19 July 2018, Nowlan wrote to Kenny to thank him for meeting the day before. He attached a brochure for apartments that Hibernia had for sale, he said, at Cannon Place on Herbert Road in Dublin 4.
“We would be delighted to show your colleague around any time next week,” said Nowlan.
There were a number of private-rental-sector investors bidding on them, he said. “But we would be interested in a swop for the site in question and we have no issue being conditioned too only delivering a residential scheme on it.”
Keeping Social Housing
A spokesperson said this enquiry from Hibernia REIT “was not considered” by Dublin City Council. “We do get enquiries like this from time to time.”
The council spokesperson said there are no proposals at the moment for a land swap or joint venture for the site. Also, “such a proposal would require councillor approval and expressions advertised publicly”.
The council spokesperson said that the council “would only consider a swap on lands adjoining [Dublin City Council] land and we would only be interested if such a swap would increase the level of social housing in that area”, they said.
In the meantime, some of the homes offered to the council in exchange have been put to other uses. A Hibernia REIT results announcement in May 2018 said it had signed a five-year lease for €400,000 a year with Corporate City Apartments – which offers corporate lets – for the 14 homes at 1 Windmill Lane.
The spokesperson for the company said that there was a “a specific clause in the lease to ensure that stays of less than 30 days are not permitted”. In other words, so they’re not super-short-term lets.
The May 2018 notice also said that its 16 homes at Cannon Place had been empty since March 2018, after tenants moved out for remedial works.
“Given its small scale Hibernia is considering disposing of the asset and recycling its capital into other opportunities,” the announcement says.
More than a year later, those homes are still vacant. On Monday, the gated complex was quiet, with no cars in the parking spaces in the back block, and empty windows.
A spokesperson said safety work had to be carried out on the homes. “Initially these were being considered for sale, however the decision has now been taken to retain the units and they will be offered for rent,” he said.
Back to St Andrew’s Court
The most recent Dublin City Council housing supply update notes plans for 42 “rapid-build” homes on the site of St Andrew’s Court, with a design team expected to be appointed in June this year.
A year ago, the council said it could no longer afford to take some of its “Part V” social housing – the chunk it gets from big private developments – in the Docklands, due to the costs. Instead, it would take those elsewhere in the city.
Added to that, some councillors are watching to ensure that plans to regenerate some of the city’s oldest complexes won’t lead to fewer social homes – as happened in the public-private partnership on Charlemont Street. Council officials have said that won’t happen, and that the aim is more homes.
The council “has no intentions whatsoever in reducing the level of social housing in the Docklands area”, said the council spokesperson.
The enquiries don’t appear on the lobbying register because they don’t constitute lobbying under the Lobbying Act, said the Hibernia REIT spokesperson.