Dublin Transformed: Behind the Hoardings

Philip Lawton, Dept of Geography, TCD and Eoin O’Mahony, School of Geography, UCD

Walking across The Samuel Beckett Bridge over the last few months, it is hard to escape the giant hoarding covering the Tropical Fruit Warehouse. It is an artistic rendering entitled ‘Abiding Traces’ by the artist Leah Hewson. This is the latest in what is now a relatively long history of development hoardings that have become a ubiquitous feature of new developments – both in Dublin, and on a global scale. Yet this one is perhaps unique, embodying the overlaps between urban development, investment strategies, and wholly enmeshed ideals of creativity within the contemporary city. This artistic motif conjoins with a dash of history – ‘Established 1892: Re-Imagined 2019’ – to give an air of both established heritage, and a  ‘new innovative future’.

These kinds of hoardings are now an almost common-place feature of Dublin Docklands. Slowly, but surely, since 2015 or so, the Docklands has become a focal-point of forms of  transformation last seen before the 2008 crash. The 2008 Great Financial Crisis flushed out the smaller operators and what we’re left with now are those that started making deals while in NAMA-hibernation. International companies, such as Oxley, Hines and King Street Capital have all joined up with Irish-based companies to provide the money to build large office blocks and apartments. Yet, these changes are not only confined to the Docklands, with the city and suburbs yet again undergoing significant transformations. In the office district of the south core, for example, on streets such as Dawson Street, Nassau Street and Molesworth Street, 1970’s modernist office blocks have been torn down and replaced by shiny new glass and brick panels. When taken together, this is the new and bold turn in Dublin’s continued emergence as an ‘entrepreneurial city’. In short, the coming together of capital and image-making strategies is bringing about profound changes in the way the way the city looks and feels. 

In the summer of 2017, as a means of analysing these changes, we began to systematically track the hoardings surrounding newly developing sites around the centre of the city. The use of stylized hoardings was a trend that, at the very least, can be traced to the Celtic Tiger period, where the hoardings concentrated on the luxury afforded by a new scheme. When recollecting this period, it is hard to forget Belmayne, with women in evening wear draped seductively across kitchen islands – a point that perhaps defined the moment when things began to turn. The more recent hoardings are muted, and less garish, with a focus on style. The work we carried out involved analysing the as-then existing hoardings, with fieldwork focused on the existing hoardings in Dublin 2, parts of Dublin 4, and the Docklands area. This was followed up through an analysis of related materials, such as websites and associated materials such as brochures.

The current hoardings range in style from the use of slogans, to large street numbers, to the rendering of an idealized future via photomontages. As we discuss in more detail in the finalized paper, the use of  street numbers – normally seen as wholly rational – so as to distinguish the building and tie it to the history of the particular locale in which it is located is of particular note. More specifically, in the case of Dublin 2 and Dublin 4, the hoardings are used as a means of affirming the presence of the building in an established up-market part of the city. Meanwhile, the emphasis within the Docklands is placed upon situating the particular building within a global frame of reference. This is achieved both through the slogans themselves, and through a charting out of the position of the building, both in the city, and in relation to the global scale, within the associated brochures and promotional material. 

Crucially, although developers seek to act in a self-interested manner, we also identified a form of collective image-making at work. Pointedly, although hoardings can be seen to be highly globalized in their reference-points, there is also something highly localized in the manner in which they are utilized. This is perhaps most explicit in the ways in which the particular locales are highlighted through the afore-mentioned use of street numbers, where a form of serial monotony has emerged. When viewed together, the manner in which hoardings are utilized demonstrates the overlaps between, on the one hand, the promotion of image making as critically analysed through David Harvey’s ‘Entrepreneurial City’, while also demonstrating the changing forms of growth machine dynamics in a city such as Dublin.

Finally, in as much as the hoardings, albeit temporarily, mark out specific parts of the city in a particular manner, they form a specific form of interface with the city in which they are situated. Here, in standing between the private and the public, they demarcate what the city is or should become as opined by the development industry. This is an idealization of a future that is desired and promoted through the intersection of globalized speculative capital, floating ideals, and both local and international actors. In as much  as these spaces are focused upon particular groups of people, the hoardings can be seen to reinforce an idealization of space that is focused explicitly of some groups at the expense of others. This reality is brought into full relief as the spaces being developed emerges from behind the hoarding. Spaces exercising the idealization of a possible future emerge fully formed, where property pieces gush how they are “… designed to entice “fun-loving, time-poor” professionals”, and with a price tag to match. With such in mind, it may not be that the hoardings have a causal impact, but they act as a means of reinforcing a dominant narrative about the city according to one particular set of actors with the power to reshape the city in their own particular image. Yet, as is attested to by the collapse of the boom of c.2008, the future it projects is a fragile one, with extremely unstable foundations that can fall apart at any moment.

 

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The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland and RICS have published their annual property report for 2011.  This report used to be a joint venture with IAVI (Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute) before it merger with The Society of Chartered Surveyors.  The report is based on a survey of 319 chartered surveyors who work in the commercial, industrial and residential property sectors.  It therefore reflects the opinions of members, as opposed to being drawn directly from sales/rental databases.  Nevertheless it does give us insight into what is happening in the market from the perspective of an informed group of actors.  The report provides both a sectoral and regional analysis, with year by year changes in prices for 2009, 2010 and 2011, but no detailed data on overall change since the peak of the market.

The report argues that the property market has now become geographically and sectorially specific in how it operates, with locales and types of property performing differently as the pressure of the crash has come to bear on it.  For example, they argue there is a notable urban/rural difference in rents and prices of residential properties, and whilst development land has plummeted by up to 95% in value, agricultural land has not fallen to the same degree and has risen in many areas last year.  They argue that the largest factors impacting on the property market have been the lack of mortgage credit for the residential market and the lack of capital finance for commercial purchases, along with fears over unemployment and pay cuts, and weak sentiment.  Notably there is little discussion of oversupply, negative equity, mortgage arrears, and immigration of household formation-aged population.

In terms of sectors, the report details:

Residential new houses – very low levels of activity characterised as ‘non-existant sales’; apartments falling in price more rapidly than houses; cash buyers dominate where sales are occuring (mainly in and around Dublin).

Residential secondhand houses – very low levels of activity; prices continue to fall, but influenced by location; falls generally in-excess of new homes; homes not coming onto the market unless absolutely necessary; very little trading up; some pick up in sales in Q3/Q4 but mainly for houses <175K; cash sales typically 60% from peak

Residential rental market – solid levels of activity; rental prices holding up with little fall in price over year; reports of no overhang of rental property and a shortage of family home stock in some areas, notably Dublin.

Offices – demand very low, weaker than 2010 and characterised generally as ‘no activity’ and rents/yields falling; city centre Dublin slightly better in activity but terms under pressure and rents falling; rents nationwide typically down 50% on peak.

Retail – sales ‘dead in the water’; rents down nationwide by 50-60% from peak; notable move to short leases.

Pubs and hotels – continued closure of pubs; no sales; banks won’t lend to the sector; Dublin faring slightly better than elsewhere; NAMA has unrealistic expectation re. hotel sales

Industrial property – sales almost non-existant; high levels of vacancy in small units; falling rents

Investment property – sales almost non-existant in commercial and residential property (except for limited cash sales)

Development land – prices down 95%; market not anticipated to pick up any time soon; NAMA set to dominate any activity

Agricultural land – described as the only functioning market, with prices rising in 2011; rents also rising

Price drops across sectors is generally much larger in Ulster/Connaught than Dublin, Leinster and Munster; and generally larger in rural areas than urban areas.

The report highlights that many chartered surveyors find dealing with NAMA very frustrating and that they anticipate NAMA will be a feature of the property landscape well into the medium term.  The forecast for 2012 – residential will remain weak, commercial to start to pick up in the second half of the year.

That analysis all seems pretty reasonable to me, though I’m not convinced that the commercial market will pick up to any great degree unless economic activity does likewise, especially a rise in employment that requires space. And there is a lot of vacant commercial space across the country that means that supply massively outstrips demand that will work to keep prices depressed for some time.  For office space in Dublin, vacancy is >20%, and in some parts of the city >40%.

What this report, and others from the property sector, highlight is the need for high quality, independent and public, commercial property and land data re. sales and rents.  The emphasis to now has been on establishing a house price register.  We need the same for the commercial sector, so that local authorities and government departments know what is happening across the property sector when undertaking planning decisions.  It would also aid NAMA in its work and form a backdrop that would help banks make sensible decisions re. lending for development.

Rob Kitchin

A news item on RTE reveals that the Construction Industry Federation has managed to wangle a meeting with the IMF/EU/ECB Troika today.  “Arriving for the meeting CIF Director General Tom Parlon said they would be setting out the contribution the construction industry could make to the economic recovery.”  A case of the Self-Preservation Society (as in the song from the Italian Job, interesting also about a bank raid) for developers and those who own construction businesses (and we’re talking the bosses here, CIF want a radical reduction in wages and terms and conditions for construction workers to increase competitiveness) or a real and vital contribution to helping Ireland recover?

Sometimes it’s difficult not to automatically rail against the CIF given that its members were a vital part of the country going bust, but in this case there is something here worthy of attention.  Whilst we do not need any housing or offices or retail parks or hotels any time soon, investment in new public infrastructures such as green energy, next generation telecomms, public transport, hospitals, schools, etc. through capital expenditure would have the benefits of creating work whilst investing in developments that would attract inward investment and stimulate growth.  The difficulty is that generating the finance for capital expenditure would necessitate further cuts elsewhere in government spend given that wider austerity measures mean that the markets are adverse to extending the state credit for such stimulus measures.

I think therefore it’s unlikely that the Troika will see anything differently after meeting the CIF.  They will agree that in principle capital spending would be good, but it must be created by further austerity elsewhere; in other words it is up to Ireland to work out how to do this within its existing arrangements, rather than through a re-jigging of the Troika terms.  That is likely to be politically inpalatable to the government.  We’ll see.

Rob Kitchin

There have been mutterings about a massive Chinese investment into the Athlone area for a few months.  On Saturday the Irish Times carried a piece providing a little more detail about plans for a enormous trading hub on the outskirts of the gateway town.  The hub would act as a site where buyers from all over Europe can sample and order Chinese goods and meet sellers and company representatives without having to travel to and around China.  A kind of permenant Chinese trade fare/expo in Europe. The preliminary design statement details that it will be: “the greatest commercial and trade centre, tour centre, cultural centre, amusement centre and international conference centre in Europe”.  According to the Times, the plans include a convention centre in the style of a Chinese palace, two five-star hotels, apartment complexes, a railway station, two bus terminals, a school, a medical centre, a fire station, a six-hole golf course and a 180m tower topped with a rotating viewing gallery.

Shanghai on Shannon?

What I think is interesting about the piece is not the proposal to create a major new investment into the Athlone area by Chinese entrepreneurs, but the way in which it is being advanced.  As the Times says itself: “the project seems to be advancing stealthily.”  By stealthily it does not mean progressing through the usual enterprise investment channels with IDA, local development boards, etc, but using political networks to build political buy-in and backing at the highest levels.  The potential investors used a local restaurant owner to make contact with local TD Mary O’Rourke, who passed them on to her son, Aengus O’Rourke (president of the local chamber of commerce), who introduced them on to his cousin, Conor Lenihan, who lined up the Taoiseach and local TD and Minister in the DEHLG, Michael Finneran.  Interestingly, a suitable site seems to have been included in September’s local development plan, designating 302 hectaures in the Creggan area as a potential site for a ‘world-class enterprise, innovation and trading hub’.  And yet, anyone who has any contact with the group or is associated with the project were uncontactable or declined to comment.  Hmmmm.

I’ve nothing against the proposal at this stage – I barely know what it consists of given that there seems to be little information beyond a couple of newspaper articles – but it would be a huge step forward if any proposal were to proceed in a transparent way through the proper channels and succeed on its relative merits, rather than progressing along the path of political cronyism. Heaven knows we need investment.  We also need good governance and government.  The two are not incompatible.

Rob Kitchin

After three years of rapidly rising unemployment, and 22 months after the government published Building Ireland’s Smart Economy – A Framework for Sustainable Economic Renewal, it has finally set out a plan for job creation (three years since the crisis started and 22 months between vision and plan is poor progress to say the least).  Earlier today the Taoiseach launched Trading and Investing in a Smart Economy: A Strategy and Action Plan for Irish Trade, Tourism and Investment to 2015, which details plans for programmes and investment to generate trade and tourism (how tourism constitutes being part of the ‘smart’ economy I’m not sure, but we’ll leave that to one side for now).    Effectively the strategy and action plan is the implementation phase of the Forfas report, Making it Happen – Enterprise Growth in Ireland.

The aim of the plan is to put focused effort into seeking new inward investment and expanding exports of indigenous and foreign-owned businesses.  Specifically it hopes over the next five years to:

  • Create over 150,000 direct new jobs in manufacturing, tourism and internationally trading services, with another 150,000 spin-off jobs
  • Increase the value of Irish exports by indigenous agency-assisted firms by one third
  • Increase the number of overseas visitors to Ireland to eight million (growing by a million)
  • Diversify the destination of indigenous exports
  • Attract an extra 780 foreign investment projects through IDA Ireland [780 is a nice specific figure, why not go for a round 1,000?]

Key actions to support the implementation of the Strategy include:

  • Developing a strong international reputation for Ireland in high-growth markets and repositioning our reputation in existing markets through a joined-up approach;
  • Developing cohesive marketing messages for distinct markets combining economic, tourism and cultural identities;
  • Developing and internationalising our enterprise base
  • Developing Ireland as a hub for global high-technology enterprises and clusters;
  • Maximising the effectiveness of our overseas diplomatic and agency representatives in key markets; making effective use of EU diplomatic resources, the Irish diaspora and country/state specific collaborative agreements and fora;
  • Improving the environment for trade, tourism and investment by expanding our international access and air connectivity, and driving the deployment of next generation broadband nationally;
  • Internationalising our banking links; further developing our international network of tax treaties;
  • Aligning visa entry requirements with our trade, tourism and investment priorities;
  • Developing joint actions and partnerships with other countries to promote trade, investment, and market access.
  • Exploiting the potential of EU Free Trade Agreements and WTO trade agreements, while advancing the strategic interests of key indigenous sectors.

The strategy is to focus attention on the following sectors: services, tourism, food, education, life sciences, software, creative industries, Next Generation Network-enabled sectors, clean technology and green enterprise, construction and the built environment, ‘silver’ technologies (loosely meaning ‘stuff for older people’).

The plan will be driven forward by a new agency, the Foreign Trade Council comprising representatives from all relevant government departments and agencies.

“The intention is that joined-up thinking will lead up to joined-up action, and that all of the available resources are used to ensure that our trade, tourism and investment sectors are well positioned to respond smartly and effectively to emerging opportunities as the global economy returns to growth” (p. vii)  Thankfully, I have faith that Forfas, IDA, EI, and some government departments, if not ministers, can do joined up thinking and action; hopefully the Foreign Trade Council will be more Forfas/IDA/EI than Fas Interesting Fas (Ireland’s National Training and Employment Authority) is not mentioned once in the document and nor were they represented on the high level group that put the plan together – one would think that given its remit it might have a role to play in creating a smart economy?).

Section 6 (pages 43-54) is the key part and there’s good stuff in there.  I’m sure there are other good ideas that could be added by opening it up to wider consultation.  What is missing are time frames, goals/targets and milestones.  Without these there is every possibility the plan will slip (and if the lead up to the plan is anything to go by, the slippage will be significant).  Indeed, it will be interesting to see in a year’s time how many of these initiatives are underway in any meaningful way.  It is critical at this stage that all the initiatives in this section start as soon as possible.  Like now.  We’ve waited long enough for the plan, we don’t need another long delay for implementation, we need action.

Rob Kitchin