What Should the Council Do With Its Smaller Vacant Sites?

Last year, councillors vetoed a proposal to sell a small plot of land not far from Newmarket to a developer who was looking to absorb it into plans on the wider site for big blocks of student housing.

Instead, they held onto the corner of Brabazon Place – a pocket of 300 sqm, or 0.07 acres, overgrown with shrubs and purple flowers that on a recent Tuesday morning drooped over a high blue fence.

What now, though, is the question. In a way, it’s a test for what happens when councillors turn down offers of cash, and instead cling on to the city’s smaller pockets of public land.

Last week, the council’s head of planning, Richard Shakespeare, said there’s no concrete next step yet. “How do we develop that out? Do we do anything with it? You know what I mean. Do we just put grass there?” he said.

At councillors’ request, Shakespeare and his team are in the thick of drawing up a list of the significant vacant sites owned by the council across the city – likely to include this one. That should be ready soon, he said.

Councillors have said they want that breakdown to help them make informed calls on land sales, and to shake up how the council looks at its smaller sites that are trickier to develop.

The choice shouldn’t just be to sell to a big landowner for money or leave it vacant for years, some say – but to hustle for cultural spaces, or even housing, instead. There’s always a question of funding, though.

A Process

“Yes, there are quite a number of little sites,” said Dublin City Architect Ali Grehan, last week in her office on Wood Quay.

She’s tallied roughly 70 plots that are scattered about the city. Those are ones zoned for housing and smaller than 1 acre, she says.

Not all are necessarily developable or viable or appealing to people to develop though, she says, as she glances down the list on the table in front of her. “It’s not cut and dry.”

When looking at whether and how to develop its sites, the council follows a process.

Officials in its housing department figure out if the plot is suitable for social housing. If so, they consider whether it should be developed by the council or offered to approved housing bodies to pitch for, instead.

But sometimes a site might be too costly to develop as social housing, as was the case at Brabazon Place, and further north in the city on Fishamble Street, says Shakespeare, the council’s head of planning, in an earlier interview.

“It can be too expensive to develop it in isolation,” he said. “We’re not the ones who decide what is value for money.”

The Fishamble Street site is another small council plot on the edge of Temple Bar. It’s been stubbornly vacant for years, after plans to build co-housing, and later social housing, on it failed.

Shakespeare said he and his team must do a better job of explaining to councillors why they’ve decided a site won’t work for social housing.

More information would resolve some of the friction, he said. “I think that would quell some of the, I won’t call it anger, but angst that they have.”

The Dublin Agreement – the programme for government drawn up by the ruling coalition of political parties on the council – demands that if they agree to sell land, it’s because of “a clear evidence-based justification that monetary benefit to the council far outweighs the long-term social and economic benefit forgone”.

This means Shakespeare’s team will have to lay out not only how much money the council would get for selling land, but what that funding would be used for, says Shakespeare.

Money from the sale of small sites is often used to top up budgets for culture and recreation – which are less well-funded than, say, transport infrastructure or housing in the city, he says.

“Part of the problem with it is, is that there isn’t a lot of government grants for all of the small stuff: the parks stuff, the playgrounds,” says Shakespeare. Take the proposed park at Bridgefoot Street, for example.

“There’s no other way of funding it. It’s a delicate balance in terms of disposals. But we don’t go around disposing of sites for the sake of disposing of sites,” he says.

Right now, the council is pulling together the list of sites of significance, he said. “What the councillors want now is a more robust and a strategic view of things.”

Some councillors, though, say it’s not just an information gap that creates tension around the sales of these small sites. They just disagree with the menu of options that are put before them, they say.

The process is flawed, said Sinn Féin Councillor Mícheál Mac Donncha, midway through a debate at a council meeting in May about selling a council plot of land on Harcourt Road – which, after debate, councillors agreed to do.

Councillors only get a look in right at the end, said Mac Donncha. “We should be in at the start. What property do we have? Where is it?”

If it’s suitable for housing then housing is the priority, he said. “If there are other uses, councillors need to have a say in it.”

Other Options

While councillors refused to sell the plot at Brabazon Place, not far from Newmarket, they made a counter-offer, says Independents 4 Change Councillor Pat Dunne.

Councillors wanted to swap the land for social housing to be built by the developer somewhere on the wider site, instead of selling it for cash to the developer, he says.

Developer Summix FRC Developments offered four apartments, but councillors rejected that too, Dunne said recently. “It was a very minimal offer.”

If apartments had been planned, rather than student housing, the council would have gotten more social homes, under the provision known as “Part V”, Dunne said.

Earlier this month, Summix applied for new planning permission for the block. It’s still for student housing, but missing from the plans this time is anything on the council’s corner plot.

Any deal there seems off the table for now. But Labour Councillor Rebecca Moynihan sees another opportunity: “What’s going to happen with it? I don’t know, but I think it would be suitable for cultural use.”

Last week, she put forward a proposal, which other councillors voted for, that if land is unsuitable for social housing, it should be assessed for a cultural space and leased for that. “That’s something that we could do,” she says.

Because standards are different to housing, developing cultural spaces should be cheaper, she said. “I just think that we need to stop allowing land that is unsuitable for housing being sold onto developers all the time when we’re not assessing them for cultural use,” she says.

This would take cooperation from higher powers, though. Funding to arts organisations from the Department of Arts or the Arts Council, in reality, disappears in rent anyway, says Moynihan.

But what if those arts organisations could lease – rather than buy – council land and the Department of Arts or Arts Council could provide them with capital to build on the land. “Rather than give them money to pay rent, we’d be left with an asset at the end of it,” she says.

Housing, but Different?

Dublin City Architect Ali Grehan said she thinks that if land is zoned for housing, it’s better to look at it for that and consider different models – rather than opening up the possibility of cultural spaces.

“Not, is the actual zoning up for grabs: should it be housing, or should it be this or something else?” she says.

Elsewhere in Europe, some local governments have opted to use smaller public sites to support community-led housing, when groups come together to design, develop, and manage their own affordable homes.

That’s the idea behind the Small Sites, Small Builders scheme in London, according to

Temitope Moses, a policy officer with the Greater London Authority.

“Essentially, that makes available to community groups small plots of publicly owned land that can be developed on,” Moses said at the CoHousing Here! Conference in Dublin in June.

There’s an emphasis on affordability, too, she said – and using models to make sure that some, or all, of these homes built on public land are affordable “in perpetuity”.

Public landowners put forward small plots for the scheme of generally less than 0.25 ha or 0.62 acres. They’re loaded up to an online portal, where community groups can browse and then bid to develop them.

This idea came, in part, from a desire to end an overreliance on a few large developers working on a few large sites to solve housing challenges, said Justin Carr, a senior manager of public land at the Greater London Authority.

Smaller sites have potential for many homes, but boroughs were focused on big-ticket sites, he says. “It’s kind of more sexy and ticks more boxes”, but “that’s quite a risky approach”.

The public landowners who put forward the land decide what kind of community group can apply to develop the site and what they want on it, said Carr. At times, this might be 100 percent affordable housing, say, or community land trusts.

Alongside the portal, they’ve set up a community-led housing hub to offer advice and support to community groups who want to bid on those sites. The hub grants funding for business plans and legal services, too.

Carr said they designed the bidding process to avoid triggering complex procurement rules that would have made it impossible for small community groups to get involved. “We just felt that it was too offputting.”

At the moment, the sites are for housing projects rather than cultural or community centres, but they do get asked about other uses besides housing, said Moses, the policy officer.

“So far we haven’t done that. It is pretty much led by what the borough is looking to achieve,” she said.

In Germany, cities such as Berlin have also done similar. In 2010, the city tried offering five publicly owned sites on a competitive and concept basis, says Padraig Flynn, a cofounder of Self Organised Architecture, a group which promotes self-organised cooperative approaches to housing in Ireland.

“So people would bid with a concept that would take into account the environmental sustainability of the project and social sustainability – so mix of incomes, mix of ages, things like that,” he says.

The Berlin pilot had some success, he says. But it didn’t set down the criteria for which sites would be allocated as transparently, or help smaller groups to the same extent, as in London.

“If we were to implement a programme like that here, I think that aspect of it would be crucial,” says Flynn.

Could That Work Here?

Dublin City Council has tried to use its land to support community-led housing before, with its Dublin House project, an effort to get a group of households to build at 29 and 30 Fishamble Street on the edge of Temple Bar.

Grehan, the city architect, said she thinks the community-led housing sector isn’t as developed yet in Dublin as in London. “For some reason or another we seem to be at almost the beginning of that process here,” she said.

One lesson from the Dublin House experience would be that – if the council were to try something similar again – it would likely ask bidders to have an architect for the project already, Grehan said.

They’d also likely need to look at ways to provide more professional support, she said. “Because we underestimated, we didn’t fully appreciate how people would get bogged down in what we would see as pretty straightforward issues.”

She’s impressed by the “soft infrastructure” and transparency around the Small Sites, Small Builders portal in London, though, and the support hub that they’ve set up, she says.

“They’ll meet people halfway and people who might not be fully versed in development issues and need a bit of professional steering, they’ll help them. I think that’s really positive,” she said.

There are cohousing groups in Dublin who are working up plans, and say they expect to be looking for land – although how big a plot they would need varies by group, and by the scale of their visions.

“We’ve been advised that we need to be really ready with our business plans,” says Anne Fitzgerald, the administrator of the Arthouse cooperative, whose members are spread across Drimnagh, the city centre, Meath and Kildare.

The cooperative has 14 members, mostly artists, who want to build affordable homes and coworking spaces – in a development that would be ecological and community-focused, she says.

They’d love to put in a cultural space, too – a small venue, perhaps, or an exhibition space that could be used by local community groups and schools, she says.

“We’re trying to access land at a reasonable cost,” she says. “Hopefully, there will be some change to help groups like us. I think it’s a good model, and not just for us, for any group.”

Grehan says that running a scheme similar to the London scheme would take much more than just throwing up a website.“It’s not a case of just do it, you’ve got a list of sites, just put them out there.”

There would be many questions to tease out. What are the terms and conditions? Who gets to develop the sites and why? What criteria would apply? How would the council make sure the process is fair to everybody? Who pays for site investigations?

It’s also not the big answer to Dublin’s housing crisis, Grehan says. “You’re not going to develop enough homes for it to be the answer,” she said.

“But I think there’s a huge value – it might not be a huge number of homes that are delivered this way – but there’s an incredible hope value in this kind of initiative,” she says.

She compares cohousing in cities to herbs and spices in recipes: “They don’t constitute the dish, but they make the difference.”

The Timing

Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam, who is head of the council’s planning and urban form committee, says he’s reading up on how other similarly sized cities are developing their vacant or disused sites.

A scheme similar to London’s is something the council could look at, he said. “I don’t know whether it could be applicable to our scenario here in Dublin.”

In his area in the north inner-city, there’s a vacant council site at the corner of North Circular Road and Russell Street, he says. “That would be an ideal site, for example, for a community partnership.”

With the council readying to review the city’s development plan and start the process of drawing up the next one, it’s an ideal time to talk about new ideas, said McAdam. “We should look at and investigate and examine all suggestions.”

Moynihan says that something like the Small Sites, Small Builders scheme sounds like the difference between having a directly elected mayor, like London, and not having one, like Dublin.

“That you actually have a political vision for the city, rather than us constantly getting into tussles with executives, who have all the power,” she says.

Meanwhile, a short stroll from the council’s vacant site on the corner of Brabazon Place on a recent Tuesday morning, Des Frazer was unlocking the door of the fishing-gear shop where he works.

He wasn’t au fait with the back-and-forth over what would happen with the council land down the road, he said.

But construction in the area has been welcome and he’d like to see something there, he says. “Most of us hate to see empty places or empty sites. Nobody likes to see it rundown.”

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Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at lois@dublininquirer.com.

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