Urbanising Sandyford Business District: Game On!

Niamh Moore-Cherry UCD School of Geography

The sprawl of Dublin into much of the mid-East has been pre-occupying planners and policymakers both during the boom years and currently in the post-crash return to growth. Controlling the rapid extension of Dublin’s functional urban area is an important policy priority for a range of reasons not least of which is halting growing regional inequalities,  but how best to turn the juggernaut of continued urban sprawl is no easy feat. The new National Planning Framework advocates in general for more compact urban growth, contained as far as possible within the existing urban footprint. In the case of Dublin, that means identifying locations for consolidation and densification. The new Metropolitan Area Spatial Plan for Dublin identifies five strategic growth corridors within the metropolitan area (all of South Dublin, Dublin City, Fingal, Dun-Laoghaire-Rathdown and parts of Kildare, Meath and Wicklow). One of these corridors is the Metrolink-LUAS green line axis from Swords to Cherrywood. Along this corridor, Sandyford is identified as a core location for enhanced mixed-use residential use and higher-density employment. But transforming the old Sandyford Industrial Estate and a collection of smaller business parks, recently rebranded as Sandyford Business District, into an ‘urban’ neighbourhood requires more than just new construction.

Site awaiting redevelopment, Sandyford

While light industrial activity was an early feature of the area from the 1970s, during the Celtic Tiger boom years Sandyford evolved into one of the largest secondary business districts (SBD) within the metropolitan area. Today, the area contains approximately 3.5 million sq.m. of office accommodation including some significant global players such as Amazon and Microsoft, as well as smaller-scale and more local enterprises. The area represents about 8% of the total office accommodation in Dublin county, a share well in excess of many European counterparts such as Canary Wharf in London or Zuidas in Amsterdam.  Given the need to consolidate the urban footprint and meet growing demand for quality living as well as workspaces, how office parks such as these can become more ‘urban’ is a key challenge. Across Europe in cities like Luxembourg and Frankfurt policymakers and planners are grappling with the transition from mono-functional land uses (usually office based) to more mixed-use neighbourhoods.

One primary concern is usually enhancing accessibility and connectivity. In Sandyford, the Luas green line, as well as the M50 extension, have been central to the development of the business district but capacity is becoming a critical issue. Even before the new developments at Cherrywood come on stream relying on the same transport infrastructure, some stakeholders believe that within 18 months, transport infrastructure serving Sandyford will have reached peak capacity. Ensuring connectivity within the area is also a concern. At present, mobility options within the district are primarily restricted to car use but simple solutions such as a more extensive bus and bike network could be brought to the table alongside more complex options, such as an underground or monorail system.

‘The Sentinel building, Sandyford’

Turning a business park into a vibrant and living urban district crucially relies not just on enhanced mobility and residential units but also on the creation of a high-quality urban environment. The legacy of the crisis remains highly visible in Sandyford with the 14-storey landmark Sentinel building still vacant since the developer went bankrupt in 2010. It was purchased in late 2017 for €850,000 by an offshoot company of the Comer brothers with the intention of constructing 294 office suites and 28 meeting rooms. However recent publicity from the developers suggest they now plan to construct over 1300 apartments in the building. Earlier this year, two further development sites were purchased by other developers close to the Stillorgan Luas stop and there is planning permission for more than 1,000 new apartments between them. It would appear that all of these developments are taking advantage of new (reduced) apartment size guidelines and a loosening of building height restrictions. Within this context of ever-increasing density, the creation of a supportive and attractive public realm and provision of social infrastructure is needed more than ever.

The potential of green infrastructure to support broader sustainability goals is significant. Positive documented benefits of greening on air quality, drainage, and physical and mental wellbeing are central to why the Sandyford BID company have identified a ‘greening strategy’ as a key element in their vision of how the district might be transformed from its current wind-swept and fairly bleak appearance. Small-scale interventions are underway, but the biggest potential lies with the proposed Stillorgan Reservoir upgrade. As part of this upgrade, Irish Water will cover over the former reservoir and complete a 15-acre landscaping strategy. This is a major opportunity to create a new public park and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council granted planning permission for the project, in line with their green infrastructure goals on the basis of this condition. Irish Water subsequently filed an objection to An Bord Pleanala who upheld their view that the ‘park’ cannot be used as a public amenity for safety reasons. A local campaign is underway led by the local BID company to reverse this decision and have the area deemed a public open space available to the 40,000 residents and 25,000 employees in the area.

Greening Sandyford

On the surface, Sandyford is a business district undergoing physical change, but the story is much more complex. Ironically, it has fallen to a business lobby group to advocate on behalf of local residents and tenants with a semi-public utility company, for access to an enhanced public realm. The county development plan and its green infrastructure objectives have been undermined by a planning appeals board in favour of a semi-state utility company. And the reaction of developers in the area to the liberalization of apartment size and building density guidelines means Sandyford is likely to very quickly become a model of high-density urban living, without the broader infrastructure needed to support it either being in place or of sufficient capacity. Urbanising a former office park is not just a matter of constructing new buildings, but requires a more integrated approach from the range of public stakeholders and a broader conversation about the kind of urban environments we really want to live in.

For more on the campaign to ensure access to the reservoir park, click here

 

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Advertising Hoarding, Sandyford, November 2009

Photographs can tell a story about time and space. Throughout the boom years, I took photographs of advertising hoardings surrounding different developments in Dublin – these included areas around Dublin’s docklands and other new suburban developments. Although cynical about what the hoardings aimed to say, I almost accepted that the marketing of developments was going to be pushed further and further all the time. The images captured a specific period, or stage of development, which has now all but ended. The developments were more or less finished as planned and the hoardings eventually came down. Images taken in 2001 on Macken Street in the docklands read, ‘now these streets have a new story to tell.’ Behind the hoarding is a shot of the builders’ offices, the usual make-shift corrugated box soon replaced by a high-profile apartment development facing on to Grand Canal Docks.

My more recent photos and their attendant hoardings tell a very different story. The challenge was once to try and take a photo of them before they were taken down; now the challenge is to capture them before they are blown down, faded away or, indeed, covered by a new advertisement attempting to sell the development at a slashed rate. Smiling faces of beautiful young couples are replaced by generic ‘to let’ signs – such is indicative of the developers’ desperation to sell or rent remaining spaces. Those that remain seem like something from another age. There is a semi-permanence to these sites that is reminiscent of the half-built spaces in the 1980s, such as the south side of Mountjoy Square and the concrete shell in Salthill. They are all symbolic of a broader phenomenon appearing throughout the country at present.

Sandyford in Dublin is just one example of this. What appears like a docklands enclave airlifted and dumped in low-rise suburbia has gradually been emerging from the industrial park developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The park was supposed to disappear and be replaced by a world of glass, steel and granite-covered concrete for cappuccino lifestyles. This world would never exist. It is the world of hoardings, a world that could not possibly come to fruition, except in the idealised world of city marketing. If finished as desired, Sandyford would gradually have taken on a meaning of its own as ownership passed from the image-makers to the residents and businessses. However, the new reality means that specific facets of it are very different now to how they were originally imagined. Retail units lie vacant but while the signs still promote it as a high-profile destination, the planning application tells a different story: change of use to allow for discount retailers.

Sandyford is a difficult place to grasp. While many of the original industrial buildings and jobs have gone, the remaining ones seem to keep the area going. Some of the spaces imagined as central features of the new Sandyford seem like isolated remnants of a time long gone, like a concierge serviced foyer with flat-screen TV’s and leather couches.

Concierge

The Plaza

The experience of the central square, ‘The Plaza’, is almost surreal. Upon walking in, the square itself is dominated by an ice-rink installed for the Christmas season. Overlooking this are blocks of apartments. Or so it seems. Closer inspection reveals that a sheet of material has been decorated in the outline of one of the originally planned apartments, covering a concrete shell. The detailing in the covering is impeccable. The window frames almost exactly match that of neighbouring buildings. The only give away is the lack of depth in the balconies and the sheer lack of movement by those presented as using their balconies. Despite the sense of illusion – the combination of a number of retail units, the ice rink, and a children’s learning centre called ‘Imaginosity’ – the square is relatively active. This mix is what makes a place like Sandyford so difficult to understand. While on the one hand, it is symbolic of the mess that is post-boom Ireland, there is a sense that social life somehow adapts.

This raises some pertinent questions (raised by Cian O’Callaghan elsewhere on this blog): How can urban planning deal with the sudden collapse of the property market? From a social perspective, how can it cope with half-finished buildings, half-finished footpaths; the emergence of the concrete bollard as a semi-permanent feature? Does the visual blight of these post-Nama landscapes tell the full story; or, in the same manner that we should not have read the visual clues of boom-time Ireland as a form of social reality, should we now be careful as to how we treat the sight of half-baked projects? We must consider here that these landscapes are now a social reality. In many ways, the slogan ‘A fresh view for a new way of life’ is therefore more fitting to the situation because it is now a new way of life. On one level, such spaces can try to hide behind their illusions, but there is a reality to them that many people have to experience in their everyday lives. What are their hopes and fears regarding a space like Sandyford? Would many of those who bought apartments here return to a ‘business as usual’ model (no matter how unlikely it is), where the physical spaces are completed, and those in negative equity are once again living in an apartment worth somewhere near what they paid for it? This, it seems to me, is the key aspiration of Nama, whether or not it is feasible or desirable. This is a central feature of Ireland’s future.

Philip Lawton

Nama Christmas!