In the 19th century, O’Connell Street was highly regarded as one of the most beautiful streets in Britain and Ireland, says retired architect Klaus Unger.
The buildings on O’Connell Street are still as beautiful as those on any of the great thoroughfares of Europe, says Unger, looking up at the rooftops, on a recent Monday, from outside McDowell’s Jewellers.
In most European cities, though, the authorities take great pride in their central avenues and boulevards, says Unger, who is also a former assistant principal in the Office of Public Works.
They invest in maintenance and cleaning and some have beauty committees, which dictate appropriate colour schemes, window frames and signage too. “Living in a beautiful environment is really important and it is also rewarding,” he says.
The entire area around O’Connell Street would be helped if the main street itself were scrubbed up, he says. “It could be a superb street, holding the nation together,” he says. “Occasions of the state are held here and it is full of potential.”
Green Party MEP Ciarán Cuffe says that the main streets in other European cities generally look better because they are cleaner. “The streets are really carefully maintained,” he says.
A champion is needed to lead the charge to transform O’Connell Street and reveal its beauty, says Unger. The national government should lead it, he says.
As Cuffe sees it though, the power to improve the area lies with Dublin City Council.
Change and Conservation
Way back when it was known as Sackville Mall, what is now O’Connell Street was lined with homes for aristocrats.
In the 1800s, following the Acts of Union, most of the residents – who came principally from the ruling classes – left and moved to London, says a past council conservation report.
“Instead of an elegant square lined with fine private residences, it became a prestigious commercial boulevard where shops and 13 businesses were an integral part,” it says
O’Connell Street was designated as an architectural conservation area in 2001.
That doesn’t mean that new development needs to look like it was designed in the 19th century, Cuffe says. “In practical terms it means that the planners are looking for a higher quality in any new development in the area.”
A report at the time identified that there were a high number of fast-food outlets, convenience stores and banks on the street. It criticised take-aways, which it said contribute to litter, and convenience stores.
The convenience stores had “harsh lighting, poor quality shopfronts and garish signage all combine to create environmental tackiness and a physical downgrading of the street in their immediate vicinity”.
The use of the street, and how it looks, has not changed much since 2001.
Unger would like to see more civic and cultural buildings on the main street of the capital. “Some cultural buildings would firm up its character,” he says.
On an Aesthetics Committee
Outside McDowell’s Jewellers around halfway down O’Connell Street, Unger looks up at a large sign showing a couple on their wedding day.
It reads “The Happy Ring House” and spans the third and forth storeys, covering much of the red-brick building.
“It is there for about 50 years,” says Unger. “So what do you do? How do you rearrange it?”
Across the road is Funland Casino, which has an awning out and a large red sign saying “Come In and Visit”.
Dublin City Council needs to establish a special planning scheme for the street, says Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam, to take a uniform approach to development there, including signage.
“We need to adopt a much stricter framework of what types of shop fronts are permitted and more importantly what is not permitted,” he says.
Dublin City Council should look to Prince’s Street in Edinburgh, he says, as an example of appropriate signage that doesn’t detract from the beauty of the historic buildings.
He would like to see the issue tackled in the upcoming City Development Plan, he says.
Cuffe says it is difficult to bring signage into line retrospectively.
Some signage doesn’t have planning permission, but if it has been up for more than seven years, the council can no longer bring enforcement proceedings.
For new signs going up since then, while the street has been an architectural conservation area, there should be rigorous enforcement, he says. “Someone has to enforce the plan.”
So, says McAdam, the opportunity to improve the shopfronts arises when the business changes hands, he says. “The city council needs to adopt a much more proactive approach,” he says.
Across the road, the Aran Store is housed in an ornate building with pillars and sculptures of people, but the trees completely block the view of it.
“I love trees but there are too many here,” says Unger. “You can’t see the buildings for the trees.”
He suggests that authorities consider the idea of removing every second tree to open up the views of the buildings.
The buildings don’t need to look the same as each other, in his view, but the signage does need some regulation, he says.
“See the CIÉ offices there,” he says, pointing down towards Parnell Square. The building is a different style from those around it but the contrast is fine, he says.
“That is not a problem, but the signage is awful,” he says. “It looks really rough.”
Some European cities, like Amsterdam, have aesthetics committees that make rules about how certain areas should look.
“They have a vision and somebody is in charge, this is what you are allowed and this is what you are not allowed,” he says.
The aesthetics committee is a small group of independent experts, including architects, designers and planners who advise a local authority on what signage, colour schemes and even window frames should be allowed in certain areas.
It might sound quite bossy, but it means the street works visually, Unger says.
Introducing such a system might require a change of planning law, which is one of the reasons, he says, that the national government should take charge of O’Connell Street.
In Need of a Scrub
On a recent Tuesday, the statue of Daniel O’Connell at the top of O’Connell Street is dirty and stained and the nearby metal benches are covered in food waste.
Cuffe, the Green Party MEP, says he would like to see more seating introduced in O’Connell Street. But of course it would need to be properly maintained, he says.
More greenery might help too. “I know certainly from Brussels they have put in fantastic planting in recent years,” says Cuffe.
He says the council needs to appoint a street manager to O’Connell Street. Someone whose sole purpose is the management of the city’s main thoroughfare.
He doesn’t know if the statues are ever cleaned, he says, but they should be fully scrubbed regularly. “The Luas stop gets cleaned almost every day.”
Back on the street, Unger points up to the top storeys of the block of buildings that run down the street, including the Savoy Cinema and the Gresham Hotel.
They have decorative pillars, engraving and detailing around window frames. “ Nobody looks up there,” he says.“All these buildings could do with being washed,” he says.
“Look at the pavement here,” he says. The streets should be washed constantly, as well as the statutes, he says.
Anyone who has travelled around Europe can see how other capital cities maintain their central boulevards, he says. “Everyone knows what should be done.”
He says he really hopes that the upcoming redevelopment of Clery’s could help to rejuvenate the street, he says.
The developer Hammerson also has plans to restore and redevelop a large strip towards the northern end of street, including the Carlton Cinema site.
At the corner of Middle Abbey Street, Unger points out the buildings of Permanent TSB and the Grand Central Bar, and across the road the Supermac’s and Eason’s.
“They are just beautiful buildings, the equal of buildings of any other city in Europe, but people don’t recognise them. You can’t see them, they are not well maintained,” he says.
Could It Be Done?
Transforming O’Connell Street would be “a colossal project but it needs to be done”, says Unger.
It could take a generation but that would be fine. “So our children and grandchildren have something to enjoy and to pass on,” he says.
It would be something for tourists to see and Dubliners to take pride in.
There are songs written about Grafton Street and he would like to hear a song someday about O’Connell Street, he says.
“For some reason it doesn’t attract any kind of emotional attachment or romance, but nonetheless the civic national events occur there,” he says.
The first step would be for the national government to formally acknowledge that there is a problem, he says.
The government could appoint a senior person to champion the transformation and then that person could create a plan with a timeline for implementation, he says.
Legislative changes might be required, he says. The person is the key. They must have authority. “Someone has to be the champion,” says Unger.
McAdam says that responsibility for managing the public realm of the city lies with the council, not the central government. But he wholeheartedly agrees that someone high up needs to take responsibility.
The council should appoint a senior official to take charge of rejuvenating the capital’s main street, he says. “Someone who can cut through the other departments.”
Cuffe agrees that someone needs to be designated as the person responsible for transforming and maintaining O’Connell Street.
The council should appoint a manager to the street, he says.
When the improvements were made to O’Connell Street 20 years ago, a senior planner was appointed, “who took a personal interest in the street”, he says.
“We have shopping centre managers, we should have street managers,” says Cuffe.