File photo of land at St Michael's Estate. Credit: Lois Kapila

On Monday evening, Dublin city councillors called on council managers to reinstate a contract with Bucholz McEvoy Architects to lead the project to build 578 public homes on Emmet Road in Inchicore.

“Dublin City Council – because it’s Dublin City Council’s decision – has dropped this main design team and now is going for tender for about 12 different tenders,” said independent Councillor Sophie Nicoullaud at the council’s monthly meeting.

“So the one point of contact is lost,” she said.

Nicoullaud proposed a motion that the council should reverse its decision and keep Bucholz McEvoy Architects “as the lead integrated design team”. In a roll-call vote, the councillors backed it.

The vote was 31 in favour, 11 against and four abstentions, meetings administrator Ruth Dowling said at the meeting.

Still though, Coilín O’Reilly, the council’s outgoing head of housing, said he wasn’t going to change his decision. And he also declined to explain it in detail.

“Unfortunately it is not always possible to discuss full details with councillors and the public of contractual matters,” he said.

In addition to the matter of Bucholz McEvoy, Nicoullaud’s motion also raised the issue of the council’s plans to sell off part of the site to fund the community facilities – such as a library and community hub – that are part of the planned development.

“This government of the coalition has €8 billion surplus in 2022, there’s going to be €10 billion in 2023, and you’re begging us to sell a site?” she said. “I would ask all the councillors in the coalition to go to their ministers and to avoid to sell public land.”

Changing horses

Announced in July 2018, the redevelopment of the St Michael’s Estate site is set to be a flagship public housing project for the council, with a mix of cost-rental and social homes.

In late September 2022, O’Reilly said some of the homes built on the council-owned site could be private rentals – an effort to raise money to help fund the community facilities.

Faced with opposition to this plan though, O’Reilly at the October 2022 monthly meeting appeared to backpedal.

“This was an own goal on our behalf,” he said. “We have heard what people have to say and we are going to do everything in our power to sort that.”

But that left the council still looking for a way to fund those community facilities, as the Department of Housing is keen to fund housing – but not so much libraries, community centres, playing pitches and other such elements of new developments.

On 7 October 2022, the council applied to An Bord Pleanála for planning permission for the project, which was designed by Bucholz McEvoy Architects, following extensive consultation with the local community.

Then, on 6 April, the regeneration forum wrote to the council housing manager to express its concern about the council tendering for a new design team. The council was dropping Bucholz McEvoy, it seemed.

The council didn’t give a reason why it was ending the contract with its old design team. It would still need architects to do detailed designs once An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission – which it did in July.

At this point, “There’s total lack of trust, trust is gone between the community and Dublin City Council on this project,” Nicoullaud said at Monday’s meeting.

Support for the motion

At the meeting, other local councillors supported Nicoullaud’s motion and called on the council to reverse its decision to drop Bucholz McEvoy Architects.

“It does feel like the rug was pulled from under us at a very very late stage,” said independent Councillor Vincent Jackson.

“I don’t know what the commercial sensitivities were, but I do know one thing, that there was a huge amount of trust there that took years to build up,” Jackson said.

“I would just hope to God that over the coming years that we don’t unwind that because the effects could be catastrophic for this Emmet Road site, which is a crucial part of the housing response that we need for the city,” he said.

Sinn Féin Councillor Máire Devine also spoke in support of Nicoullaud’s motion. She said she’d been trying to understand the decision to drop Bucholz McEvoy but didn’t.

“I don’t think I got all the answers Coilín,” she said to O’Reilly at the meeting. “I think still we’re very, very stuck and very disappointed in the unilateral decision – imposed with no by-your-leave to the forum or to councillors – of changing the format, which works really, really well.”

Green Party Councillor Michael Pidgeon said he also didn’t fully understand the decision or why it was taken. But he urged councillors to focus on the positive: the project is still moving forward.

“I wouldn’t say that trust is gone or destroyed,” Pigeon said. “It has taken a hammering. But I don’t want to talk it [the project] down too much.”

O’Reilly’s response

At the meeting, O’Reilly said he’d “been asked numerous times” about the decision to drop Bucholz McEvoy. “I’m not going to change my position at this time,” he said.

The project has moved into a new stage now, and the next task now that it’s got planning permission is to do detailed designs based on the overall design produced over the years by Bucholz McEvoy in consultation with the local community.

“The new design teams have been appointed and will begin work on design-to-tender documentation in the coming weeks,” O’Reilly said.

Procuring multiple contractors on individual contracts “provides the opportunity to select the most appropriately qualified specialist individuals to deliver on bespoke parts of the individual project”, he said.

As for the plan to sell off land to help fund the community facilities, “There has always been a commercial element within the project that has been used to fund the community facilities,” he said.

“This has been discussed at length with councillors in the past and commitment has been given that all housing within the development will be public,” he said.

“The mechanism to deliver the commercial element with public housing above is yet to be finalised, but it will indeed require some sort of disposal that we will be grateful for the council’s support on,” he said.

The plans for the project – in addition to the blocks of apartments, and the library, community hub, and space for a creche – include spaces for a supermarket, five other retail spaces and two cafes.

“Failure to agree disposal will leave an empty commercial space and no funding to develop community facilities,” O’Reilly said Monday.

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