By Joe Brady, School of Geography, University College Dublin

The City Council has decided to persist with its plans to turn College Green into a pedestrian plaza. It seems a nice idea – currently it is not a place to linger despite having one of the best vistas in the city, and Dublin, unlike many European cities, does not have many squares or plazas.  The original plan was rejected by An Bord Pleanála in October 2018 but the City Council has decided to resubmit the application.

The Wide Streets Commissioners did a great job in making the present-day city centre, especially the wide and spacious route along Dame Street into O’Connell Street. They wanted their new streets not only to be routeways but to facilitate business and shopping, the latter by putting shops on the ground floors.  They were not as good at planning for traffic.  Cities, like Dublin, which develop on both banks of a river always have issues in managing crossings.  Almost as quickly as traffic began to flow along College Green, it was realised that it was a pinch point; a bottle neck.  Though the Liffey had more than fifteen bridges, most were to the west of the new city centre and largely irrelevant in dealing with traffic flows.   College Green became the focus of much of the south city traffic – from Lord Edward Street, George’s Street and Grafton Street to name but three routes – with traffic being forced to flow parallel to the river before it could cross it.  For traffic coming from the north side, College Green became a major (though inefficient) distribution node.  The widening of Carlisle Bridge (O’Connell Bridge), the building of Butt Bridge and the opening up of Tara Street and Lord Edward Street in the latter decades of the nineteenth century were all attempts to get the traffic moving more freely. While each of these initiatives was useful, the problem remained and there is an important map in the 1925 Civic Survey which shows the scale of flows and the congestion points.

 

Figure 1: The Civic Survey map showing traffic flows (1925)

Traffic movements hinge in large measure on College Green. Not much has changed since then, despite the opening of the Talbot Memorial Bridge because not much has been done to redesign and reimagine the routes leading in and out of the city centre to provide better flows and access.  The city is fortunate that the era of the international traffic consultant (the 1960s) did not result in inner city motorways but some of their ideas were useful. Recently, access for private traffic to College Green has been limited at certain times during the working week.  Yet, even with this restriction, the introduction of the Luas has made congestion even worse and you have only to be there at 9.00 a.m. on a workday to see the chaos with D’Olier Street full of buses.  Yet it is still the best route available for traffic trying to get from north city to the south city centre.   Try, for example, getting to the National Concert Hall in Earlsfort Terrace or the Grafton Street shopping district from the north city without using College Green. There are no good alternatives. The north and south quays are regularly jammed, even at the weekend, and getting to any of the shopping districts can be mind numbing.

So, to close off College Green requires a lot of thought.  There needs to be a sensible solution to the bus routes that go cross-city and for which this is the natural route.  Some have suggested cutting the cross-city element of such routes and forcing people to change buses – that will really encourage public transport use!  Thought also needs to be given to how people access the south city for shopping and recreation.  At the moment, it is only difficult and annoying but the proposal if implemented will make it an expedition.  The glib answer is to tell people to use public transport but that is going to be even less attractive if what is outlined above happens.  Plus… if you are going shopping, you do not envisage carrying your shopping by bus.  Similarly, many people, with good reason, will not use public transport at night. Now.. cities adapt!  If College Green is closed off without a radical redesign of the central city circulation system, the city will adapt; flows will readjust. It is the nature of that adaptation that is of concern.  If we are content that the city centre becomes nothing more than a tourist centre, then by all means we should proceed as we are. However, if we believe that the city centre should be a vibrant place where Dublin’s citizens go to enjoy culture, dining, shopping, then a lot of work needs to be done and to be done BEFORE the plan is implemented.  There are plenty of alternatives to the city centre for all of the activities mentioned, a concern as the proportion of Dubliners who NEVER go to the city centre is rising.

For more on the Making of Dublin City, see the book series here edited by Joe Brady and colleagues.

I have previously commented on this site about the impact of unsustainably high rents on businesses in Dublin city centre, and particularly in the Grafton Street Area. Almost a year on, things are beginning to look a little different on Grafton Street. At the Southern end of the street, for example, Dunnes Stores has reopened in recent months and a Disney Store is due to occupy the unit next door, with work currently underway.  Meanwhile, across the street a 3D Games shop has opened in what was then a vacant unit.  Further down the street, the former West Jewellers  has recently been bought by Brereton Jewellers and is therefore likely to be reoccupied in the near future. Furthermore, the two units on South Anne Street, which appeared in the image with West Jewellers last February, are now occupied (Opticks Eyewear and Madison furnishing and interiors store).

West Jewellers and Surroundings, corner of Grafton Street and South Anne Street, February 2010. Photo by Philip Lawton

West Jewellers and Surroundings, corner of Grafton Street and South Anne Street, December 2010. Photo by Philip Lawton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, however, the issue of rent is high on the agenda. One graphic illustration of this is the ‘High Rents Are Killing Our Jobs’ sign which hangs above Korky’s shoe shop on Grafton Street. Spreading the net a little wider, but staying in roughly the same area, the current crisis has claimed a number of high-profile eateries.  Although the closure of some ‘Celtic Tiger’ establishments, such as Nude on Suffolk Street, may be an indication of shifting consumer habits, a letter to the Irish Times, last Friday, 14th January from the owners of  Mermaid and Gruel on Dame Street cites what they refer to as the “…intransigence of landords who still demand boom-time rents…” as the predominant factor in the closure of their restaurants. While the ban on upward only rent reviews and the fall in values offers potential for new-comers, it seems high rents are still placing a serious burden on existing businesses. Furthermore, this is not in any way confined to the area that I have focused on here, but, as highlighted by various media sources (eg; Galway and Athlone), is a national issue.

Philip Lawton

 

Korky's Shoe Shop Grafton Street, December, 2010. Photo by Philip Lawton