Dublin City Council plans to turn the former Bank of Ireland building at 371–373 North Circular Road in Phibsborough into four social homes.
It has agreed a deal with the owner to buy it, and has funding for the project from the Department of Housing, said Fiona Craven, a senior executive officer with the council, at a housing committee meeting on 13 September.
It has a similar vision for 114–116 Capel Street, she said, where the council plans to put four social homes on the upper floors and put the ground floor to some kind of creative or artistic use.
Council officials are thinking about whether to buy other former Ulster Bank buildings around the city too, and turn them into social homes, she said.
The refurbishments fall under its “adaptive reuse” scheme, she said.
“The main objective is to deliver new homes by refurbishing vacant office and commercial space for social housing,” said Craven. “To restore derelict properties and to protect newly vacant properties.”
With only two staff in the unit and piles of suitable buildings in Dublin, they had to draw up a shortlist, she said.
They are currently pursuing plans for 13 buildings across the city, which could become 135 social homes.
The vacancy rate for Dublin office space has been on the rise in recent years, according to recent reports by analysts and in the media.
It was 6 percent in 2018, reached 10.5 percent in late 2022, according to estate agency and property consultancy Knight Frank. It reached 14.4 percent between January and June of this year, according to the Irish Times, citing a report from property consultants HWBC.
One bid that failed was for money to restore the long-term vacant building at 38/39 Bolton Street which was formerly the Bolt Hostel, said Craven.
The activists didn’t feel too bad though, said one of them, Séamus Farrell. Dublin City Council had said the building – which it owns – would be turned into accommodation for people who were homeless.
It didn’t though. In 2019, it was still sitting vacant, and the Green Party’s Ciarán Cuffe, then a councillor, now an MEP, said, “It’s shameful that a building of ours sits empty for four years.”
Eight years on now, and the council still hasn’t done anything with the building. Instead, it has left it sitting vacant, rotting.
In its latest effort to do something with the building, the council applied to the Department of Housing for funding under the “adaptive reuse” scheme, to build six one-bed apartments in it.
But, unlike proposals for the buildings in Phibsboro and on Capel Street, the Department of Housing knocked back that proposal.
“It was quite a high-risk project. The building is in poor condition internally,” said Craven. “There are a lot of structural reports that need to be carried out.”
The building is not on the record of protected structures but the council wanted to “try to restore the building back to its original form as much as possible”, she said.
Green Party Councillor Donna Cooney, expressed disappointment about it and asked what the other options are for developing it. “Where exactly are we? Could I have a little bit more detail on that?”
Craven said it would have been cheaper to knock 38/39 Bolton Street, but to preserve the heritage of the city they are trying to restore it.
The council intends to push ahead with that and will apply again for different funding, said Craven.
The council is currently carrying out feasibility studies for repurposing several buildings that it owns in the north inner-city and Stoneybatter – at Infirmary Road, St Lawrence Place East and Arran Street East.
“There are alternative potential uses for each of the properties,” she says. The Arran Street East could form part of the Smithfield Markets development.
She will present those proposals to the Central Area Committee in October, Craven said. “We’re also keeping an eye on the former Ulster Bank property portfolio,” she said.
The Ulster Bank on College Green was recently put up for sale, she said. That would be expensive, but the council would consider it, she said.
The six-storey over basement, 5,840sqm office building “is being offered for sale at a guide price of €13.5 million”, according to the Irish Times.
“The opportunities in this area I think are very good,” said Craven. Commercial vacancy is high and rising in Dublin and currently at 13.5 percent, she said.
Commercial property prices are also expected to fall. “It’s an area that is definitely worth considering expanding,” she said.
The council aims to pursue commercial buildings where there isn’t a lot of competition, said Craven.
There is no point in spending time on a feasibility study for a building if it’s going to get snapped up by another purchaser, she said.
“They are complex projects,” said Craven. “They are kind of resource-heavy, but given the objectives that can be achieved in terms of climate action and urban regeneration I think it’s worth it.”
Councillors who spoke all welcomed the initiative.
“This is a superb presentation,” said Fianna Fáil Councillor Eimer McCormack.
The building on North Circular Road has been empty for a long time, she said. “It will be great to have vibrancy back there with people living above the shops.”
“This is absolutely to be commended. It is a great scheme,” said Social Democrats Councillor Catherine Stocker. “Can we ramp it up?”
“Could we do more if we had more resources? Yes,” said Craven. There isn’t a shortage of funding, said Craven.
But they would need more staff, including architects, engineers, fire-safety experts and construction workers, she said. “It’s really human resources that we need.”
Builders and architects are interested in working on restoration projects, she said. “There is just so much enthusiasm from everyone on these projects.”
Would it be easier if the central government provided the council with a budget upfront, instead of making it apply on a project-by-project basis? asked Stocker.
“I think that’s a rhetorical question,” said Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland. “I think we all know the answer is yes.”