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Solomon's judgment cuts a Dublin masterplan into two sad pieces

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Readers may recall that last year I wrote in this space about the great commotion caused in Dublin by the largest planning application ever lodged in the Irish republic. This sought permission to redevelop the derelict dockyard and railway lands at Spencer Dock, a 20ha site on the north bank of the Liffey some 2km west of the city centre and about the same distance from the Georgian Mile.

There were then (and still are), several singular aspects to this project.

First, the development proposal was unusual. In return for an unprecedented TEN year planning permission the promoters proposed not only to spend £1.2 billion putting up 26 buildings containing 600,000m2 of office, residential, hotel, and retail accommodation (plus 7,000 parking places), but to throw in the cost of building and operating the new Irish National Convention Centre on the site.

Second, the commission to masterplan the whole development, design the convention centre and the 25 other buildings was to go, not to a cosy gaggle of architects in the usual way, but to one only - the aged, expatriate, Pritzker Prize-winning Irish-American Kevin Roche.

Third, the response of the planning authority, Dublin City Council, to this unusual proposition, was to demand a truly massive amount of additional information from the applicants, then to grant a FIVE year, detailed planning permission for thefirst phase of the project - the Convention Centre, one hotel, one office building and one apartment block only - while insisting on detailed planning applications for the remainder. And finally - having received notice of appeal against this decision - to commission a six-month study of high buildings in Dublin.

The developers, the Spencer Dock Consortium and the Dublin transport authority, were mortified by these judgments of Solomon. Clearly the three permitted buildings could not carry the cost of the loss-leading convention centre and, equally clearly, the requirement for separate detailed planning applications for 22 more buildings would not, as the saying goes, be bankable. Having already spent £11 million on the project the consortium felt that an appeal was the only option.

The oral hearing before the Irish Planning Board, which ended last week, was held in a windowless conference room in the bowels of the Gresham Hotel, decor circa 1955. On a dais the inspector was flanked by two assistants, one of whom confined himself to traffic issues and was mostly silent, and the other who permitted himself occasional acid interventions.

The first two weeks of the hearing consisted of human wave attacks from conservationists, planners and local residents on every aspect of Roche's project, from its motivation - 'Greed' was the favourite explanation - to its excessive height (94m, scarcely the stuff of world records), right down to the alleged obsolescence of the convention centre because it did not have glass walls. This was followed by two weeks of stubborn defence by the consortium - including a 90-minute presentation by 78 year- old Kevin Roche, followed by five hours of cross-examination, in the manner of a police interrogation, from which he emerged bloody but unbowed.

The upshot of the appeal will not be known until July, but the process thus far has not been edifying. As an American participant cautiously observed: 'You know, I think it's better the American way, when public participation takes place at the time the parameters for development are being drawn up, rather than having them emerge from a knock-down, drag- out fight that upsets a lot of people.'

But not everyone. Having the appeal decided before the height limits recommendations are submitted - which is what will happen - has upset a different lot of people, thus evening things out

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