Outside the Eurospar shop in Fairview, on a busy main road, an illuminated billboard flips from advertising Facebook to promoting the Clear Channel advertising company.

On the other side of the billboard is a new wheelchair-accessible payphone that accepts coins and cards.

Art McGann, who works locally, says he can’t fathom why a flashy new payphone has been installed here. “I genuinely don’t know, but they look expensive.”

“The day of that kind of thing is over,” says McGann. “If anyone gets knocked down, or anything happens, everyone goes for their mobile.”

They’re put in because they are advertising structures masquerading as accessible payphones, says independent Councillor Damien O’Farrell. “They are nothing more than luminous advertising hoardings and street clutter.”

As proof, he points to how council planners assessed the structures when the communications company Eir got planning permission last year for the Fairview payphone, and 21 others across the city.

They looked at most of the applications primarily as outdoor advertising but they should have been assessed as what the council calls “street furniture”, he says.

If the planners had assessed them as street furniture they would have looked at how they contribute to clutter, he says. “I believe it is extraordinary.”

If they are just advertising, says O’Farrell then it raises questions about whether they should be put in at all, and how the city benefits from this use of public footpath.

Dublin City Council didn’t respond to queries about how the phones had been assessed.

What Are They?

In December last year, as the council was considering Eir’s planning applications, the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) ended the requirementthat payphones above a certain usage threshold had to be kept in operation by Eir.

Previously, the commission’s position had been that public payphones were relied upon by disadvantaged and vulnerable consumers, so if they were used a certain amount, they had to be kept.

The change means that whether or not a phone box is put in is now left entirely to the planning process.

Of the 24 phone booths for which Eir applied for permission, with Clear Channel as its agent, Dublin City Council granted permission for 22 and refused the other two applications, showplanning files.

O’Farrell’s complaint is that almost all of the phone kiosk-billboards were assessed by planners as outdoor advertising and not as street furniture. (The kiosk in Rathmines wasn’t assessed as advertising.)

He says he wants to know why planners didn’t also refer to section 16 of the city development plan, which stipulates that phone kiosks are street furniture.

Had they done that they might have assessed whether they were contributing to clutter, he says. “I am very concerned as regards the treatment of the planning applications,” he says.

None of the reports reference the “correct section of the current Dublin City Development Plan dealing with telephone kiosks, street clutter and accessibility”, said O’Farrell.

At a recent meeting of the planning committee, O’Farrell also raised questions about where the kiosk-billboard had gone in Fairvew.

It was originally placed in the middle of the path and didn’t leave enough room for wheelchair users to pass on either side, he says.

He measured it and found it didn’t comply with Irish Wheelchair Association’s guidelines, he says, say there should be two metres free.

He raised the issue in the council and Eir has since moved the phone to the side. That’s welcome, O’Farrell says, but he would like to see all the kiosk-billboards removed.

The phones have been designed to be wheelchair accessible as the telephone is placed within reach of a person in a wheelchair.

But a spokesperson for the Irish Wheelchair Association says access to public spaces, including footpaths, is one of the biggest problems faced by people who use wheelchairs.

“We continue to raise the need to keep footpaths clear from clutter and vehicles with local authorities, as it can hamper people using wheelchairs or other mobility aids in going about their day,” she says.

“Clear footpaths that can be used by all is always our members’ preference,” she says.

Neither Eir nor Dublin City Council responded to queries sent last week.

In its planning application, Eir says that some people do still use payphones.

“They fulfil an important public function in providing access to emergency services; to charity services; to report emergencies and by the vulnerable to access support services,” says a document submitted with the planning application.

Payphone usage was commonplace in Dublin among homeless persons when the application was submitted in 2019. However, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive stopped designating beds via its freephone service during Covid-19.

Payphones can also provide connectivity if the mobile service is interrupted, says the report. The kiosks are designed to be “vandal-resistant”, it says.

Into the City

Outside the Peacock Theatre on Lower Abbey Street, a new phone kiosk on one side is a billboard advertising Coca Cola on the other.

This street is part of the O’Connell Street Architectural Conservation Area (ACA), meaning that one of the council’s aims within the area is to reduce unsuitable signage and illuminated advertising.

Businesses trading in the O’Connell Street area aren’t allowed to install illuminated signs. “Internally illuminated signs, illuminated scrolling signs or signs using exposed neon tubing will not be permitted,” says the executive summary of the ACA report.

On Lower Abbey Street.

“Digital advertising display is not appropriate to architecturally and historically sensitive locations,” wrote Kevin Duff of An Taisce in December 2019, objecting to plans for kiosk-billboards at Lower Abbey Street** **and at Bolton Street, where the structure is next to a protected structure, the TU Dublin Bolton Street college.

An Taisce also objected to a kiosk-billboard granted permission at Merrion Street Lower which is beside protected structures as well as one of Dublin’s “pre-eminently important 18th-century Georgian city squares, Merrion Square”, wrote Duff.

Phone boxes are “2oth century infrastructure made redundant by the advent of the mobile phone and smartphone”. The kiosks won’t be used and so they will generate anti-social behaviour and vandalism, contribute to street clutter and cause an obstacle for the visually impaired, wrote Duff.

The primary purpose of the new booths is to “sell digital advertising space in the public realm”, he wrote.

Still, the council approved Eir’s applications for all three of those kiosk-billboards.

Here, Not There

The council knocked back two applications on the grounds that they were in residential areas, while another was approved although residents objected on similar grounds.

One refused was at the junction ofSouth Circular Road and Greenville Terrace in Dublin 8. “This zone consists of areas predominately residential in character where outdoor advertising would be visually inappropriate,” says the planner’s report.

Likewise, an application to replace existing kiosks at Eglington Road in Dublin 4 was refused because it is a residential conservation area, says the planner’s report.

“It would result in a negative visual impact on the amenity and architectural quality of the area and as such would be contrary to the policies and objectives of the Development Plan,” he wrote.

The Donnycarney West Community Association, which says it represents 700 households in Dublin 9, meanwhile, objected to a new phone kiosk on the Malahide Road.

They said it wasn’t right to put up an advertising structure in a residential area, pointed out that illuminated ads are more disruptive, and said the existing phone booth was rarely used.

The chairperson of the association, Jean O’Brien, wrote that the existing booth “is unsanitary and an eyesore and is poorly maintained by Eir”.

“The LED digital display will be much more visually obtrusive and become more of a nuisance to nearby houses than the previous static advertising,” O’Brien wrote.

Dublin City Council didn’t respond to a query about applications in residential areas.

Laoise Neylon is a reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lneylon@dublininquirer.com.

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