In Ireland, Strategic Development Zones (SDZs) are designated by the Government pursuant to Section 166 of the Planning and Development Act 2000. The advantages of a Strategic Development Zone designation is that special planning and development rules pertain in an SDZ. Essentially the rules make it simpler and faster to obtain planning permission for a development which is in unison with the planning scheme in a particular SDZ. There is also the ancillary benefit that the decision of the planning authority cannot be appealed to An Bord Pleanála (Ireland’s Planning Appeals Board) by either the applicant or a third party, thus fast-tracking the planning process.
An SDZ planning scheme sets out how a zone will be developed, the type and extent of the development, the design of the development such as maximum heights, external finishes and general appearance, proposals in relation to transport/traffic management and parking, proposals regarding the provision of services on site, proposals to minimise adverse environmental consequences and for residential developments proposals relating to the provision of amenities, facilities and services for the community.
Prior to the introduction of the SDZ planning scheme, planning and development in the Dublin Docklands was governed by section 25 of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority Act, 1997 and administered by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (which is in the process of being dissolved). The benefit of a Section 25 planning for developers was (a) it short-circuited development commencement and completion time lines, (b) created a cohesive and financially viable strategy for local development, ensuring local infrastructure issues and site specific issues were addressed, and (c) resulted in prior consultation with the community and businesses in the area.
Regrettably due to the Irish banking implosion and economic downturn, investor confidence was depleted and the regeneration of the Dublin Docklands lapsed into a developmental coma. In an attempt to reignite development in the Docklands, the Government on 18th December 2012 designated the North Lotts (which is located on the north side of the river Liffey in Dublin 1) and Grand Canal Dock (located on the south side of the river Liffey in Dublin 2) as a new SDZ. The new SDZ planning scheme seeks to unlock the potential of the Docklands, Dublin’s inner city, the city’s proximity to the sea and its cultural and historical buildings. The Government believes by leveraging such potential the State will benefit both economically and socially. The North Lotts and Grand Canal SDZ are divided into five hubs:-Spencer Dock, Point Village, Grand Canal Dock, Britain Quay and Boland’s Mill.
North Lotts and Grand Canal were designated as an SDZ due to:-
- their economic and social potential to the State;
- the utilisation of public investment in infrastructure; and
- to effect policies contained in the Dublin City Council Development Plan.
Over the last 20 years and to much fanfare a good portion of the Docklands has been redeveloped. However, there are still a number of sites and vacant plots around North Lotts and Grand Canal which have latent developmental potential. The North Lotts and Grand Canal Docks SDZ comprises 66 hectares with approximately 22 hectares yet to be developed. This area has the potential to create accommodation for 5,800 people and 23,000 workers. The Samuel Beckett Bridge is seen as the link between the North Lotts and Grand Canal Docks and brings both areas under one SDZ. In addition two new pedestrian and cycle bridges are also planned across the river Liffey from Forbes Street to New Wapping Street and from Sir John Rogerson’s Quay to Castleforbes Street (costing up to €7m each). There is also a proposal under the Transport 21 and Smarter Travel plan for an underground Dart with a station at Spencer Dock, Dublin 1. This will facilitate the interchange of the Dart, Luas and regional trains. The Dublin City Development Plan 2011-2017 notes the Docklands as one of few locations in Dublin with sites capable of hosting capital city landmark buildings. It is no coincidence that Google, Twitter, Facebook, Dogpatch Labs and Yahoo have decided to open their European head quarters in an SDZ and the area is fast becoming known as the “Silicon Docks”.
The Docklands SDZ planning scheme identifies six key themes:-
- Sustainability based on meaningful civic governance and engagement with the community.
- Economic renewal and employment. The Docklands is well placed given the variety of sites it holds to endorse national, international and local enterprises.
- Quality of living – the planning scheme seeks to ensure a balance between modern living, quality of life and access to employment for current and future residents.
- Identity – Dublin has a unique maritime character which can be utilised to advertise its heritage and rich landscape.
- Infrastructure – good infrastructure is essential to support the four themes mentioned above.
- Movement and Connectivity- this theme recognises the importance of connecting the east, north and south of the city with the city centre, with supports such as drainage, social infrastructure, electricity, health and educational facilities. Movement and connectivity is also required to support themes 1-4 mentioned above.
The above themes provide the outline for proposed developments in the SDZ across the five hubs. While particular planning requirements apply to each hub, certain elements are deemed critical/fixed for a sustainable Docklands and must be complied with, while others which provide for local conditions are treated more flexibly. Fixed elements relate to:-
- development quantum. It is calculated that 1,800 residential units and 200,000m2 commercial space can be built on North Lotts and 830 residential units and 105,00m2 commercial space in Grand Canal,
- the use ratio. The target is a 50:50 residential/commercial ratio over the area with 30:70 in the commercial hubs,
- the public realm. The public realm is a fixed element so as to ensure public areas, new streets and lanes are constructed within the development timeframe,
- the block building line. The block building line seeks to ensure a congruent street scape and avoid buildings with projecting canopies or kiosks which could impinge on the character of buildings already in the area,
- the height of the block. The height of buildings is also taken into consideration. Large city blocks facing onto Mayor Street in Dublin 1 can be 6 storeys for commercial or 7 storeys for residential. Due to the width of the river and campshires an 8 storey commercial or 10 storey residential will be permitted. In four of the hubs e.g. Point Square located in The Point Village, 22 storeys can be accommodated while 12 storey’s commercial can be accommodated in Station Square. In the Boland’s Mill hub, buildings can be no higher than 15 storeys,
- other matters such as block shadowing, heritage and protected structures, density and plot ratio, design material and external finishes are also considered.
The Grand Canal Dock and North Lotts Section 25 Planning Scheme (the predecessor to the SDZ planning scheme) resulted in the construction of the Grand Canal Theatre, the trendy mixed residential and commercial quarter in the Grand Canal area, the Convention Centre and Point Village. These developments have been huge influencers in attracting Google, Twitter, Linkedin and Synga Games to Dublin. With the decision to dissolve the Dublin Docklands Development Authority many queried the validity of existing Section 25 Certificates, which have yet to be acted upon. The Dublin Docklands Development Authority (Dissolution) Bill 2014 proposes the following for existing Section 25 Certificates:-
- The Section 25 Certificate will be treated as abandoned where the application was submitted but had not yet been determined from the date to be designated by the Minister;
- A Section 25 Certificate will no longer be valid (from a date to be designated by the Minister) where the certificate has issued but substantial works have not been carried out or the development has not commenced. Unhelpfully, the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (Dissolution) Bill 2014 does not define “substantial works” so the legislators may need to look at that before finalising the Bill;
- Where a Section 25 Certificate has issued and substantial works have been carried out these certificates will be effective for a period of 3 years but if the development is not completed within the 3 year period the Certificate will no longer be effective;
- Where substantial works have been carried out under a section 25 Certificate, in order to complete those works, an application for a section 34 permission under the Planning and Development Act 2000 can be applied for. This section 34 permission (upon being granted) would replace the section 25 Certificate albeit any works carried out prior to the section 34 permission would not be prejudiced and invalidated.
The Government has also introduced other initiatives which are aimed to facilitate regeneration in the Dublin Docklands and utilise unexploited amenities such as:-
the Cruise Traffic and Urban Regeneration of City Port Heritage (Local Action Plan for Dublin) which seeks to develop cruise tourism, contribute towards the regeneration of North Lotts and Grand Canal Dock leading to the creation of employment and a synergy between Dublin City and Dublin Port.
The Government has also introduced (the “Green IFSC”) initiative which will back public private partnerships in the green finance sector. The initiative focuses on low carbon emissions and aspires to attract companies to a green financial services hub where finance, trade and skills can be exchanged. The planned Green Irish Financial Services Centre seeks to anchor itself on the success of the IFSC and become a key player in the global carbon market and promote Ireland as a carbon management centre of excellence.
The SDZ designation should allow for a fast tracking of the construction of office and residential accommodation within the SDZ, helping to alleviate any current perceived shortages. The National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) which controls 70-80% of sites and buildings in the Docklands area plans to invest c.€2bn in redeveloping the area and has indicated it is amenable to entering joint ventures and releasing sites for development. There are other proposals, such as the €150m redevelopment of the landmark Boland’s Mill property. The planning application includes proposed office, residential, cultural and retail development, totalling almost 400,000 sq. ft. (approx. 36,800 sq. m.). The development will comprise mostly offices, 42 apartments, a cultural and exhibition space, in addition to retail and restaurant space. The planning application also envisages the creation of a new urban quarter with new streets and open spaces, including a large public square, which will open on to Grand Canal Dock. Public commentators have opined that all this bodes well for the economy and property market, leading to the creation of jobs, which was one of the primary drivers in the regeneration of the Docklands.