At a previous job, Kelly McCarthy would gaze out from her office window onto the old Independent House, the beautiful stone and 1920s red-brick building on Middle Abbey Street.
“It dawned on me at one point after I’d been sitting there for months and months. I’ve never seen any signs of life out of that building,” says McCarthy.
The building, she realised, was vacant. Around the time that McCarthy clocked the vacancy, there was a brewing local debate about plans for housing on the playing pitches beside St Anne’s Park.
That struck her, she says, and she thought: “Why are we building on green space if we have these massive, beautiful city-centre buildings that are just completely unused?”
That was 2017 and the scene is similar today, the building empty, the windows and doors on the ground floor boarded up.
In the meantime, the building was added to the vacant sites register – and then taken off it.
To add a property or site to the vacant sites register, the council has to show it can tick several boxes.
The building or site has to have been vacant for more than a year. And it has to be either suitable for housing, or fall within an area of regeneration.
Any site bigger than 0.05 hectares and suitable for housing, and in an area of housing need, can be added to the register.
A site that isn’t suitable for housing can also be added to the register if it is in a regeneration area and having a negative impact on the amenities or the character of the area.
The building, built in 1924, was once the home of the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent and Evening Herald. The papers moved out, though, and it was closed up in the early 2000s.
In 2018, Dublin City Council put Independent House on the vacant sites register, meaning the owner would have to pay the vacant sites levy, a kind of tax brought in to try to nudge property owners to bring their vacant buildings back into use.
Dublin City Council justified the move because Independent House is in a regeneration area, says an An Bord Pleanála inspector’s report.
Primark Ltd, which owns the building, appealed the council’s decision to An Bord Pleanála. Independent House is not visibly neglected or contributing to anti-social behaviour, it argued.
The An Bord Pleanála inspector found that while the inside of the building needs work, the outside was well maintained.
“Even though anti-social behaviour is probably taking place in the vicinity it cannot be attributed to the vacant nature of the subject building,” says the report.
Why That Route?
If the council had added it to the register on the basis that it was a residential site, it wouldn’t have had to show that the building is negatively impacting the surrounding area.
But it justified it on the grounds it was regeneration land instead.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council says that it didn’t put the building on the vacant sites register on the grounds that it could be homes as it didn’t meet the right criteria.
“This was due to the zoning of the site as Z5 and the provisions of the Development Plan that apply,” they said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that sites can be considered residential land if there is a need for housing in the area and the site is suitable for housing.
Independent House is in the north inner-city, where homes are much-needed. In 2008, a previous owner got planning permission to make the site into 189 homes and a hotel.
The area is zoned Z5, which means the focus should be on strengthening civic design character and dignity. But that zoning also allows for housing.
Still, though, “The subject site was not considered residential land” in the context of the register, the council spokesperson said. Because the Z5 zoning “would not meet the criteria for lands that are zoned for residential or primarily residential purposes”.
McCarthy says she is disappointed to learn that Independent House isn’t on the vacant sites register.
There should only be one criteria for inclusion on the register, she says, which is vacancy.
“Well this is misadvertising then. It’s not a vacant sites register,” she says. “If it is meant to be solving the problem of vacancy then you need to have a different tool.”
Kathleen Stokes, a postdoctoral researcher at Trinity College Dublin working on urban vacancy, says that the law doesn’t define vacancy in the same way that most ordinary people probably would.
Only certain vacant buildings can be included on the register, she says.
That said, the main question is not how can we get more vacant buildings on the register but rather how do we get those properties back into use, says Stokes.
Often it is more complicated than it sounds, she says, as few are ready to be occupied immediately and most need work. Sometimes, that work is very substantial, she says.
Local authorities communicate with owners and encourage them to return their properties to productive use, she says.
“Understanding the day-in, day-out, experience of trying to identify and respond to vacancy is something that we are missing from the current discussion,” she says.
Lots of cities have problems with vacancy, says Stokes. “Different cities have different pressures and constraints.”
Authorities in Philadelphia combine their internal information with more from utility companies to track which homes aren’t using much water or electricity, which suggests they might be vacant.
Says Stokes: “We probably need to think of more responsive ways of capturing vacancy in a live manner.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says the government’s new housing strategy is set to be published soon and will address the issue of vacancy.
“The Department is working to ensure that existing housing stock is utilised to its fullest extent including a targeted, effective and coordinated approach to identifying and tackling vacancy,” he says.
A Primark spokesperson says that talks around the redevelopment of Independent House were put on hold last year due to Covid-19.
“Further examination of the site and its best use will now take place before discussions resume,” they said.