On the narrow spit of land between the Liffey and Grand Canal Basin, among the tech company offices and luxury apartments is a small patch of grass people could picnic on, or play football on, or whatever they wanted – if it wasn’t all fenced off.
Two men sat on separate benches on a stone walkway outside The Benson luxury apartments at lunchtime on Friday, soaking up the sun. In front of them, through a wire-mesh fence, the vacant site was visible but out of reach.
A little further east, towards Benson Street, the fence was covered with a hoarding showing the council’s grand plans for turning the lot into a park. A “highly flexible” space for “local events” and “picnicking”, it says.
Around the corner, facing onto Benson Street, is a colourful mural showing deer or elk in a field with some trees nearby and mountains in the background. “Benson Street Park”, it says, “Coming soon”.
It’s been there so long, it’s looking a bit battered, and weeds are growing up over the wall behind it, from within the site.
Phil Bustard works nearby. “I’ve been working here for three years and it’s been like that the whole time,” he said by phone on Friday.
“If you put up a goal post kids could use it. Or just open it and people would sit there at lunch,” Bustard said.
“When you’ve got a picture of this amazing park, it’s just a slap in the face that it’s sitting there empty,” he said.
The problem is that it’s the council that’s supposed to build the park, but the council doesn’t own the land, the owners of the neighbouring buildings do – and it is yet to be handed over.
Also, the neighbours have underground car parks beneath the park site, creating legal and design difficulties, according to the council.
What is the plan?
Back in 2015, Targeted Investment Opportunities Plc applied for permission to build a mixed-use development at 76 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in the docklands. The fancy, tech-y part of the docklands.
The planning application described the applicant as “an umbrella fund with segregated liability between sub-funds, for and on behalf of South Docks Fund, a sub-fund of Targeted Investment Opportunities PLC” .
The plan back then was to knock down a warehouse and build a seven- to ten-storey complex with 58 apartments, about 9,500 sqm of offices, a cafe/retail unit, an ESB sub-station, and a basement with 84 car-parking spaces and 153 bike parking spaces.
The planning application also notes that the development was to include, “Landscaping including new communal courtyard, public plaza and portion of ‘’Chocolate Park’’ public open space.” And designs show Chocolate Park.
One of the conditions of the planning application points to a complication: the development includes a car park that extends under the park site.
“Prior to commencement of development the applicant shall submit revised layouts for the underground car park to be agreed in writing with Dublin City Council,” the condition says.
These must “ensure that the park area to be taken in charge by Dublin City Council is suitably drained” and “can cater for the proposed park design prepared for DCC”.
For years after the planning approval, the developer wasn’t building the complex. Then for years it was being built. And for all that time, the Chocolate Park site was just waiting.
By now, though, the construction company Bennett has built the development for Targeted Investment Opportunities Plc.
The Benson, the apartment building the men were sunning themselves outside on Friday, is part of it, and now includes 72 apartments, according to Bennett’s website.
The park – sometimes known as Chocolate Park, and sometimes as Benson Street Park – still hasn’t been built.
The park has been in the works for many years. The council’s Dublin Docklands website says there was a preliminary design for it back in 2006.
“It was to be based on a theme from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the website says. “It has since changed.”
The current design “is complete and includes a suspended play-pen built into a crane structure, flower gardens and a terraced area”.
“The crane is an oblique reference to the dockland’s past and straddles the southern end of the park to form a fully-enclosed adventure space for children between the ages of 3 and 10,” the website says.
“However, the play area will not be the only function of the crane. It is planned to
project films on to the side of it when running an outdoor cinema event,” it says.
However, the crane, and the terrace, and all of that, now live only in design documents, and in images on the hoarding on the side of the vacant lot next to The Benson.
The problem, it seems, is that the site has not yet changed hands from the developer to the council.
When Fine Gael Councillor James Geoghegan asked the council about the planned park last year, the written reply he got in March said that “The Chocolate Park / Benson Street Park site is under development / construction by Bennetts as part of the Development 76 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay.”
The council had granted itself planning permission to build the park, via its “part 8” planning process, the reply said.
“When the site is ready to be taken in charge by Dublin City Council a due diligence survey will have to be carried out to ensure that the underground development has been sufficiently secured to enable the construction of the park without any adverse impacts on the underlying development,” it said.
“It is intended this will take place in Q1 of this year,” it said. “Development of the planning drawings for construction will follow this process and then subsequently, tenders can be advertised for the construction of the park however construction is unlikely to take place in 2022.”
There have been some legal issues with handing the land over from the developer to the council, which are being resolved, and some works that need to be carried out, Green Party Councillor Claire Byrne said on Tuesday.
The council has not replied to queries about the park sent Thursday. A director of Targeted Investment Opportunities Plc has not replied to a query sent Thursday. And Bennetts has not yet replied to a query sent yesterday.
The “Park was at design stage 8 years ago then they [the council] gave site to developers for yard/lock up”, Michael Ingle, vice chair of the Grand Canal Dock Residents Association, said by email on Tuesday.
“Once again developers trumped residents,” Ingle said. “We have been pressuring them for years on this.”
Ingle forwarded a recent response from the council to queries about progress with the park.
“The legals are yet to be completed in respect of the land transfer to DCC however there has been active engagement between both parties,” it says.
“There are a number of interim minor works which need to take place over the coming months and these services will be tendered over the coming weeks.”
“An integrated design team is to be appointed by DCC to finalise designs of the Park for construction stage,” it says. “The aim is to have a team appointed before the year end and once appointed DCC will update local residents.”
The council’s capital budget for 2023 to 2025 includes €90,000 for this year for the Benson Street Park, €1,060,000 for next year, and €350,000 for 2025.
Geoghegan, the Fine Gael councillor, says the delays with the project have been “incredibly frustrating”.
“It’s an area that doesn’t have that many public amenities, and it has a large number of apartment blocks,” he said by phone on Tuesday.