On a sunny spring morning, Talina Hendrick and I sat down on a bench in the garden under the balconies of Dominick Hall, the latest addition to Dublin City Council’s social housing stock. As we took in the residents-only green space suspended at first-floor level, I asked her how she felt about the apartment she had just moved into, a new chapter in the 27 years she has lived in the Dominick Street council flats. “In one word: Heaven,” Hendrick replied. “I feel I’m living in a five-star hotel. We had no space. It’s all so much better.” 

As I visited the brand-new building, workers were putting the finishing touches to the last of the 72 apartments. An elderly woman opened the glazed door between her home and patio and told me: “I’m only after moving in. I’m delighted!” Then she hurried back inside, looking overwhelmed. “I’m up the walls,” she said. A resident walked in with bags of groceries, another cycled out. They had nothing but praise for their new homes. Across the garden, a family was gathering to attend a funeral.

The cycle of life is now taking over what has been one of the city’s longest-lasting building sites. “It was worth the 19 years in pain and torture,” Hendrick said. This is the time elapsed since she was first told she would move into a new flat after Dublin City Council earmarked Dominick Street among the 1960s social housing complexes in need of “regeneration”.

For the past two decades, she said residents have been “in and out of meetings”. A rollercoaster ride has taken them from the promise of a public-partnership demolition and reconstruction project contracted to Bernard McNamara’s development group to its collapse in 2008, followed by years of back-and-forth between the local authority and central government, and finally Covid-19 construction delays.

Of the 198 flats in the old complex, 108 remained occupied in July 2008, according to research by social scientist Rory Hearne at the time. By 2015, this number had fallen to 51, according to Dublin City Council figures. Now Hendrick said there were just 28 households left, nearly all of whom had moved to the new apartments in March.

More families on the housing list will now join them. An entire community, not just blocks of flats, has been decimated and needs rebuilding.

Some residents got tired of waiting and decided to live elsewhere, but others will never see the new face of their street. “Some died,” Hendrick said. “It’s a pretty old neighbourhood,” she added, explaining that her 94-year-old next-door neighbour was the latest to move.

As a neighbour of the Dominick Street flats for more than six years, I have looked on in dismay as the overgrown site first remained idle while the housing crisis inexorably deepened, and then finally saw partial development. Meanwhile, on my short walk to the central Dublin location, I have seen private developers complete two blocks of student residences and a hotel from scratch, but no other homes.

Why did it all take so long?

From sources directly involved in the project, previously unpublished internal documents, and expert academic analysis, this is the story of the two decades that have resulted in the replacement of nearly 200 out-of-date homes with just over 70 habitable today, albeit incredibly better ones.

On a single site, this unfinished story is also that of Ireland’s housing crisis. Could it offer lessons on how to solve this challenge?

*****

When the Dominick family first developed Dominick Street in the 1750s as one of the early Georgian thoroughfares on Dublin’s northside, it was a really swanky area, according to Denis Byrne, one of the architects of the new apartment block. Excavations for its construction revealed rare cellars covered with underground slate roofs to protect valuable goods like wine or cloth, he explained, adding: “There were some serious merchants in the area.”

While some of the street’s original Georgian townhouses survive, many of them later turned to tenements and eventually became derelict. Fast forward to the 1960s and the then Dublin Corporation cleared the entire bottom section of Dominick Street Lower, where it joins Parnell Street, to build social housing. Eight blocks of flats totalling 198 homes were erected on both sides of the street between 1961 and 1967, occupying a prime three-acre site in the heart of the city centre.

The original social housing complex on Dominick Street Lower, with Parnell Square in the top left corner of the picture. Source: 2008 Masterplan from Dublin City Council

Forty years later, they were showing their age. The Exchequer had just funded the regeneration of Ballymun at a cost of around €1 billion. There were hundreds of older flats in need of deep refurbishment. Local authority workers had begun the painstaking work of planning new communities with the participation of their residents, including the earlier meetings remembered by Hendrick. The daunting regeneration programme was now competing with Dublin City Council (DCC)’s funding allocation to develop new social housing.

“Our view at the time was that it would take us 100 years,” said a senior source then involved in the projects who wished to remain anonymous. To reduce this timeline to 20 years, the City Council began to look at public-private partnerships (PPPs), which the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition in power at the turn of the millennium had introduced to finance Irish infrastructure. 

Hearne chronicled the rise of PPPs in his 2009 paper “Origins, Development and Outcomes of Public Private Partnerships in Ireland: The Case of PPPs in Social Housing Regeneration”. It was published by the Combat Poverty Agency, a state-backed think-tank since disbanded. His openly “critical analysis,” which “contextualises PPPs within the broader process of privatisation and neoliberalism,” was nonetheless precisely documented. 

Hearne credited then Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy for pioneering the PPP model in Ireland from 1999, on the back of a report by consultants Farrell Grant Sparks, and rolling it out to sectors like water and transport infrastructure. “The government instructed DCC in 2002 to pursue the regeneration plans through a PPP model,” Hearne wrote.

By contracting the delivery of public service assets to private developers who would retain an ownership and maintenance role in the long term, the Government wanted to keep capital expenditure off the state’s balance sheet in accordance with EU budgetary rules, Hearne wrote. Another advantage sought was the achievement of higher quality through the incentive usually provided by the responsibility to maintain the assets into the future.

In the case of social housing, however, PPP deals were instead designed to hand over ownership of a lucrative private section of each site to developers in exchange for the free delivery of new homes. The addition of privately sold or rented apartments to each complex was also hoped to result in a greater mix of residents. The first such project, at Fatima Mansions in Dublin 8, was widely regarded as a success.

The idea was to “tap into the value of the land to get developers,” the senior source said. The operative word here is “value”, which was hitting record highs as the Celtic Tiger roared.

Dominick Street was next on the list of PPPs, alongside other Dublin flats at O’Devaney Gardens, St Michael’s Estate, Convent Lands on Seán McDermott Street, and Infirmary Road. McNamara was the lead developer for this bundle of contracts. In the case of Dominick Street, it was the sole operator selected in 2006.

The McNamara bid offered to build 360 apartments, including the 120 minimum social housing units required by the Council, above 11,100 sq m of retail space and a 2,100 sq m community centre on the ground floor. 

In response to a freedom of information request, Dublin City Council replied that a copy of the agreement with McNamara “does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken”. It is unclear how far into the establishment of a formal PPP contract their negotiations advanced before they collapsed.

Dublin City Council said no spokesperson was available to discuss the history of the project, but it did provide extensive documentation covering the past 15 years. The rest of this article is partly based on those documents. There was no response to the requests for interviews I sent to Bernard McNamara and his current company.

On May 19, 2008, Dublin City Council issued a public statement to say that the five regeneration PPPs with McNamara “will not now go ahead as planned”. The local authority added:

“The current economic climate and the substantial changes that have taken place in the residential housing sector recently, have rendered these projects unviable, from the private partner’s perspective, as the PPP concept was partly based on the sale of private units to fund the cost of new social and affordable units being provided free to Dublin City Council.”

As the senior source put it, “the recession killed it”. While Dublin City Council announced a decision to take over some projects immediately, Dominick Street was left in limbo. Worse, the local authority had already started to empty the flats and demolished three blocks totalling 65 housing units on the east side of the street in 2006 to clear the way for McNamara. Just one in four of the complex’s initial 198 homes remained occupied.

The local authority’s position ever since has been that “the complex was one of the PPP projects which were aborted by the developers in 2008 following property market collapse,” as summarised in a Council report the following year. 

McNamara issued media statements at the time denying this and arguing that requirements such as apartment size had changed since it was selected as the developer. Bernard McNamara told RTÉ Radio’s Marian Finucane in May 2019 that it was the Council’s decision to end the partnership, amid lack of progress on the details of those projects yet to apply for planning permission, including Dominick Street.

“There were two sides to the story,” Dónal Palcic told The Currency. Palcic is an economist at the University of Limerick who has done extensive research on PPPs. Although he recalled McNamara saying the Council had pulled the plug, Palcic added: “It very much looks like he would have walked away. It would have been a big part of that story given the collapse in the value of what he would be able to sell, because of the structure of those deals. It was something like 1,800 homes to be built across the five sites, and around 800 of those would be for the developer to sell privately. The rest would be for the Council to provide social housing. So, obviously, the collapse in values must have massively changed the maths for McNamara.”

*****

After reported attempts to go to the second bidder for the Dominick Street regeneration project, Dublin City Council officially declared on December 1, 2008: “Due to changed economic circumstances a number of these regeneration proposals are no longer viable under the public-private partnership process”.

The report presented to councillors on that day by Assistant City Manager Ciaran MacNamara (no relation) stated that Dublin City Council had established a “multi-disciplinary Special Housing Taskforce” to find alternatives for St Michael’s Estate, O’Devaney Gardens and Dominick Street. The city now needed to find €95 million to regenerate the three locations over the next 10 years. 

The taskforce had not entirely given up on the private market to fund the regeneration of social housing: “Research has indicated that, whereas the residential market is significantly depressed at this time, the strategic location of all three sites is such that there would be demand for a significant element of commercial development which will release equity to part-fund the three projects.”

This approach translated into a masterplan for a mix of 200 new social, affordable and private homes on Dominick Street Lower. Dublin City Council also envisaged commercial space, which would be funded by the sale of land elsewhere on the site. The taskforce’s report stated: 

“These proposals differ fundamentally from the original public-private partnership process in that the projects are not developer-led. It has therefore been necessary to review deliverables and timeframes, and each development will require frontloaded funding in order to deliver the proposed regeneration over time. Dublin City Council are proposing to seek Department funding for the social and affordable housing element and some of the community structures in each area, and to develop an agreed site master plan for commercial and private residential developments when the market is ready. It is envisaged that the release of equity from the sites will contribute to the funding of these projects.”

Proposed commercial use initially included a hotel on part of the site. The new timeframe predicted that the first construction phase would be complete in 2013, allowing the remaining residents of the old complex to move into new homes. Further residential and commercial development was to follow.

In 2010, a planning application

It took Dublin City Council two years to bring phase one of this masterplan to the planning permission stage. Councillors gave the green light for an application to An Bord Pleanála and further demolition in December 2010. The Council’s valuation office told them that, “whilst it is not expected that Dominick Street will attract high street fashion retailers,” there was demand for large stores in the city centre. “On the back of the City Council’s published masterplan for Dominick Street, the valuers’ office have received preliminary queries from retailers seeking quality retail units in this location. The long-term viability for ground-floor retail at the Dominick Street site is extremely positive.”

On Christmas Eve, 2010, city architects applied to An Bord Pleanála for the construction of a version of the new building we know today. That initial plan was for 58 apartments across five floors, retail space and a community centre on the ground floor, and a basement car park. Outdoor space included a private shared garden and sports pitch at first-floor level, a new side street in the direction of Parnell Square, and a complete remodelling of the street with wider footpaths and tree planting

The hope at the time was that the new development would link up with the “cultural quarter” planned around a new library at the top of Parnell Square. This other PPP, with a charitable foundation sponsored by US property investor Kennedy Wilson, has also faltered since then.

An Bord Pleanála received observations from immediate neighbours of the project, who turned out to be speculative property investors. One wanted the new apartment block to be set back from the derelict workshop he owned at the back, in the hope that a future development on his site could have windows. In an unusual request, the owner of another adjoining building on the corner of Parnell Street asked for the apartment block to be higher than planned. This would set a precedent so that he, too, could build higher in a future hypothetical redevelopment of his property.

An Bord Pleanála’s inspector rejected their demands outright but, by the time he issued his report in October 2011, a more serious issue had come up. The planning authority was now examining a railway order application for the Luas cross-city extension. This provided for a tram station immediately outside Dominick Hall, where the Council had planned wide footpaths and greenery:

“In essence, therefore, there is a direct conflict between the public realm proposals in this development and the traffic arrangements associated with the Luas project (if not the Luas project itself). The Board is therefore in a position in which it must either approve the Luas railway order, with the traffic arrangements inherent in it, and thereby not approve the full extent of the public realm proposals in this approval, or else modify the Luas railway order to preserve this landscaping ethos for the regeneration project, and thereby alter the traffic arrangements proposed for the Luas.”

The Luas cross-city extension interfered with the development of Dominick Hall. Photo: Thomas Hubert

The Luas won. In May 2012, An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for the new building on the condition that landscaping at the front did not extend past the existing kerb line. It also had to accommodate electrical equipment for the Luas as needed. Three months later, An Bord Plenála gave its green light for the Luas extension. 

Dublin City Council demolished two more unoccupied blocks of flats, clearing the entire east side of the street in preparation for the project. When it came to rebuilding, however, the local authority was far from ready. Meanwhile, Luas construction crews were more advanced. In June 2013, they broke ground. Soon, they would take over the entire road frontage along the site. 

Dublin City Council had to negotiate with them for street space. By July 2015, social housing officials reported: “Luas are currently undertaking enabling works for the link line between the Red and Green lines along Dominick Street. It has been agreed with Luas to locate the Dominick Street Luas station in the centre of the road outside the proposed new apartment block and retail unit as a ‘centre of the road station’ rather than two stations on either side of the road.”

Although the new station format saved footpath space, landscaping plans at the front of the building still had to be scaled down. Competing timescales between the two projects continued to cause disruption for another two years. “The Luas… It was torture, the whole thing was developing at the same time as we were designing this,” said Louise Cotter, one of Dominick Hall’s architects. 

“Unfortunately, funding was unavailable to progress the project at the time and the site remained vacant.”

Dublin City Architects

Yet while logistical challenges explain part of the delays, this was not the main reason. The summary of the regeneration project on the blog of Dublin City Architects is very clear as to why the grant of planning permission did not trigger immediate construction: “Unfortunately, funding was unavailable to progress the project at the time and the site remained vacant.”

Since Dublin City Council had taken over the failed PPP project, its plan had been to apply to the minister for housing for Exchequer funding at the time of construction. Correspondence obtained through my freedom of information request shows that this fraught process took the best part of four years.

In October 2013, the private secretary to then Minister for Housing and Planning Jan O’Sullivan, the Labour junior minister then in place under Fine Gael Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, responded to Dublin City Council’s “request for an update on the position regarding funding for the regeneration of Dominick Street”.

The letter put in the Government’s retaliation first, arguing that the local authority was not ready: “It is understood that the Council propose to attract private sector investments as part of the funding arrangements for this project and that efforts in this regard are continuing. In addition, in accordance with the requirements of the Capital Works Management Framework, a full capital appraisal, including detailed costs, must be prepared and approved by this Department.”

Also, Ireland was not yet out of the EU-IMF bail-out programme at the time. O’Sullivan’s office made it clear that there was no money available: “Having regard to the early stage of progress in the development of this scheme and the existing high level of commitment in respect of the regeneration and remedial works projects currently underway in Dublin City and elsewhere, the Department is not in a position at this time to provide an indication as to when funding will be provided for this scheme.”

Dublin City Council got the message. Its housing executive manager Gerry Geraghty waited until January 2015 to submit a formal funding request for phase one of its regeneration project on the east side of Dominick Street. At that point, only 51 units in the surviving old flats were still occupied and the housing list had 1,813 people waiting in Dublin’s Area H, which covers the north city centre.

Geraghty’s submission included the justification for the decision to demolish rather than refurbish the remaining flats. This was “considered and discounted as unfeasible” because they had no open spaces, their location had ruined the historic Georgian alignment of the street and their ground floors were divided into bedsits that were “small and unattractive by modern standards”.

Instead of 58 apartments as envisaged in the masterplan, the plan was now for 73 social homes after “the apartment unit costs and the commercial viability of the retail and community elements led to a reassessment and redesign of the scheme”. The shop floors and sports facilities were reduced to accommodate townhouses at the back of the main apartment block.

Among the changes, part of the site previously earmarked for potential commercial development was now reserved for the Department of Education, which had committed to buying it for €900,000 and building a new gaelscoil there. The proceeds from that sale would go towards the construction of a new side street and community centre within Dominick Hall. 

There was still an element of private funding in the budget submitted to the Department of Environment. “The Council proposes to fund the commercial elements itself from capital receipts from disposals (school site, shop units and vacant land following demolition of remaining 90 units and removal of portacabin on the western side of the site).” While acknowledging market risks, Geraghty added: “The Economic Development Unit has taken soundings in the commercial property market and is confident that an anchor tenant can be found for the main shop unit.”

Of €22.9 million in construction costs including Vat, €4.9 million was for commercial space to be funded privately. Add project management costs and other ancillary services and the estimated all-in cost of phase one came to €26.4 million. 

“Plans for the development of this project have failed to materialise over many years due to a failed PPP, collapse in the construction sector, lack of finance, etc. As can be expected this has led to loss of faith and dissatisfaction among the local population,” Geraghty wrote in conclusion to his plea for Government funding. “Dublin City Council is of the opinion that following revision of its plans and its commitment to funding the commercial elements, there is now a viable and worthwhile project in place and requests your support in this matter.”

“Not considered an economic proposal”

After a series of meetings, the response from the Department was a resounding no. It took another five months to come in a formal rebuttal to Geraghty from Deirdre Kearney, assistant principal in charge of social housing capital investment at the Department of the Environment, on July 3, 2015.

Her letter questioned key choices at the core of the project. Dublin City Council had planned deep retail units on the ground floor, to be restocked from a laneway at the back rather than from the busy shopfronts obstructed by the Luas station. Apartments were planned from the first floor up, with a secluded garden at the back, on the roof of the shops.

The first floor-level garden of Dominick Hall as finally delivered. Photo: Thomas Hubert

“The ground floor retail units are considered to be too extensive,” the Department official wrote. “It would appear that any commercial prospect for retail units on this street would be for small retail units which could be provided within the footprint of the apartments (similar in scale to the units on the main shopping street) rather than protruding out to form the expensive podium thereby created. In such situations, the Department’s advice is to design as ground floor residential units, but designed in a way as to be convertible to retail should commercial considerations ever make this viable.”

The letter went on to criticise other design aspects: the number of columns in the retail units, the lack of individual back gardens for the townhouses instead of the rooftop shared garden to “be created at considerable additional expense,” down to the size of disabled toilets in the proposed shops.

Regarding the crucial plan to remove the old flats on the western side of Dominick Street and sell part of the land to fund the project, Kearney wrote: “The Department has concerns about the demolition of perfectly serviceable apartments which may be suitable for remedial upgrade”.

Overall, the Department slammed the plan, saying that “without sufficient rigour in the approach to design on a project of this scale, costs can rise to an unacceptable level”. The average construction cost per apartment, at €234,000, was deemed “substantially above unit cost ceiling norms”. Kearny concluded: 

“The scheme as currently proposed is not considered an economic proposal and does not make the optimal use of City Council lands for social housing purposes where the primary objective is to maximise delivery and minimise public spending. Furthermore, the retail element is not considered commercially viable. It is the views of the Department that an overall development strategy should be considered, with the remit of maximising both the western and eastern sites for social housing use, with a minimum public spend.”

The Department also requested Dublin City Council to “submit a full Capital Appraisal which considers all available options for delivering social housing in this area with indicative ballpark costs towards identifying the best means of addressing the need”.

This was to include a cost-benefit analysis and “consider in depth a more cost-conscious redevelopment of the site, omitting all non-essential accommodation and proposing a value-for-money-conscious design. In particular, any proposal for retail on the ground floor would need to be accompanied by a retail study confirming the commercial viability of retail units on this non-shopping street”.

Seven years after the collapse of the McNamara PPP, and three years after An Bord Pleanála had approved a new plan for phase one of the Dominick Street regeneration project, the Department now headed up by Fine Gael Minister of State for Housing Paudie Coffey under Labour Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly had just sent it back to the drawing board.

*****

Email correspondence in the following week shows that housing officials from Dublin City Council met with their counterparts at the Department of the Environment to digest the setback.

On July 10, another Department executive, Bairbre Nic Aongusa, acknowledged some progress: “From our discussion this morning, my understanding is that DCC will reconsider its initial proposal to demolish the social housing units on the west side. Therefore, if demolition of the social housing assets is no longer proposed to fund the commercial developments, and on the condition that there will be no costs arising from the commercial element to be met from Social Housing funds, the risks inherent in relation to the commercial element of the project are primarily a matter for DCC.”

An avenue had opened to resolve the row. The requirement for a full capital appraisal and cost-benefit analysis, however, still stood. 

Within days, on July 21, 2015, Geraghty resubmitted Dublin City Council’s application for €19.7 million in Department funding for the social housing portion of the project. The retail space and community centre were still there, but the local authority was now committing to funding them from its own resources and the sale of the school site only. 

Instead of demolishing the surviving west-side flats and selling part of the site, Geraghty pledged that they would be “considered for refurbishment”.

The local authority stuck to its guns regarding the podium design, with apartments and a roof garden above ground-floor shops. “The Council does not consider that street-level housing at this location on a busy highly trafficked urban street beside O’Connell Street and within metres of a Luas train station is appropriate,” Geraghty wrote.

Cost estimates pushed back against the Department’s claim that apartments would be too expensive, with only some types exceeding guidelines by no more than €1,000 each, according to Dublin City Council.

The letter also defended the retail option, citing for the first time the inclusion of the site in a proposed Strategic Development and Regeneration Area (SDRA) with “the potential to play an important role in enhancing the north city’s retail core”. The policy was confirmed the following year as part of the Dublin City Development Plan 2016-2022.

Geraghty claimed that the council had lined up a major supermarket chain as anchor tenant for the largest of the three gound-floor units, where it was satisfied with the design. The retailer wasn’t named, but with Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, Dunnes Stores and Centra already present just around the corner on Parnell Street, there were few options left.

“It is a prominent site and leaving it undeveloped in a time of housing crisis would send the wrong signals.”

Gerry Geraghty , DCC housing, 2015

To address the Department’s criticism, Dublin City Council’s new submission also weighed up other options. Selling the empty site would deliver fewer homes and fail to free up the older flats for redevelopment; an approved housing body would not build the mixed-use project consistent with the new zoning priorities; a PPP would be hampered by the “history of failure” at this location and the mixed-use plan was “not in the least straightforward” to deliver in this way.

“The option of not doing anything with the land in the short to medium term pending improvement in land values was considered. However it is a prominent site and leaving it undeveloped in a time of housing crisis would send the wrong signals,” Geraghty added. 

He referenced a 2014 complaint by the International Federation of Human Rights to the Council of Europe, which argued that the conditions at several social housing complexes including Dominick Street fell short of Ireland’s international obligations. The Council of Europe would later find Ireland in breach of one article of the European Social Charter.

It took Dublin City Council a lot longer, however, to complete the full financial analysis requested by the Department. The 19-page report is dated May 31, 2016. In the intervening ten months, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny had called an election. Labour was wiped out and the new full minister for housing in the all-Fine Gael government was Simon Coveney.

Officials had changed, too. The Dublin City Council senior executive who submitted the full appraisal of the Dominick Street project was now Marguerite Staunton. On the receiving end at the Department of the Environment’s social housing capital investment unit, a new principal officer called Aidan O’Reilly took it up.

The report re-assessed the options listed by Geraghty one year earlier with a scoring system. It put a €6 million valuation on the bare site earmarked for phase one under discussion and concluded that the proceeds from its sale would buy only 24 apartments in the open market, while taking housing stock out of the private market.

A fresh PPP under new models developed since the financial crisis would add at least one year of further delays as the site was too small to contract a single private developer and would have to be bundled with others, Dublin City Council warned.

The Council also pointed out that the history of PPP failure at this location was seen as a significant deterrent to revisiting this form of procurement.

The next best option was to allocate the site to an approved housing body, which the local authority warned would have to redesign the project to suit the requirement of its own funding sources, adding further delays too.

Just like the previous year, the report concluded that the option achieving all objectives for the site – speedy delivery of social housing, mixed use in accordance with the City Development Plan and reduced risk of failure – was the original proposal developed by Dublin City Council with Government funding. 

A cost-effectiveness assessment considered different balances between residential, commercial and car parking space in terms of net present cost for the social housing element and net present value for retail space. The analysis pointed to a mix of 72 apartments, 2,870 sq m of commercial area, a 430 sq m community centre and 52 car parking spaces as the most beneficial.

Part of this work was conducted by the architects Dublin City Council had appointed at the end of 2015 to carry out the project, Louise Cotter and Denis Byrne.

“The Department, because they were the other main stakeholder, and of course were paying for it – they made the project kind of sweat,” Byrne told me. “For a long time, I’d say six months, we were preparing scheme after scheme showing what happens if it’s got eight apartments to a core, then six, and so on. But they also asked us to do studies of different uses on the site so that they could do their cost-benefit analysis and they had a third-party consultancy firm come in to run this cost-benefit analysis.”

Through the process, Cotter and Byrne said Dublin City Council remained focused on the best outcome for the project, including the delivery of social and architectural benefits that would not appear in financial calculations.

After final checks by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which mercifully took only 10 days, Coveney and his colleague in charge of public expenditure Paschal Donohoe, who is also the local TD, visited Dominick Street to announce €22 million in Government funding for the project. The sum was to cover the construction of the 72 apartments, their portion of the car park and the community centre.

On June 29, 2016, the day the two ministers and then Lord Mayor of Dublin Brendan Carr were photographed turning the sod on the site now vacant for 10 years, Department official O’Reilly wrote to the city council to confirm the so-called stage one approval for funding.

The €21.6 million specifically allocated to social housing came with seven conditions. The Department continued to question the proposed design of the new building, asking that final plans seek to reduce apartment size to increase the number of homes and reduce or eliminate car parking if possible. 

The Department also continued to show little faith in the ground floor’s retail merit, requesting that its cost be accounted for separately in contractor tendering documents. “The commercial element should be designed in such a way that it is capable of reversion to residential in the event that it remains un-tenanted,” O’Reilly insisted. “This will help to address prior Department concerns about the proposal for commercial use in this location.”

A Dublin City Council official added a handwritten note to the document after speaking with O’Reilly by phone: “Advised him our city architect believes that the conditions set out below have the potential to push the project back a year”. Both sides immediately set up a new series of meetings “to get to the bottom of these”.

Behind the cheery photo-op with politicians on the site, the back-and-forth was far from over.

The year-long estimate proved accurate. It wasn’t until October 2, 2017 that Dublin City Council was ready to apply for stage-three funding approval – the detailed budget intended to feed into the tendering process for construction contractors.

In response to my freedom of information request, Dublin City Council refused to release the costings included in that application, citing commercial sensitivity. However, when the construction tender notice finally went out in January 2018, the estimated value of the contract had ballooned to €35 million excluding Vat. Procurement officers spent the rest of that year selecting contractor Duggan Brothers, whose €35.084 million bid was formally accepted on November 30. The official commencement date of construction was January 14, 2019. 

It took another four years to complete Dominick Hall, with a final sting in the tail caused by Covid-19 lockdowns. In July 2021, Donohoe announced on his constituency blog that despite the interruptions caused by the pandemic, phase one of the Dominick Street regeneration would be finished by Christmas that year. 

Residents, by then, knew the value of such promises. Their first batch of new apartments was in fact not ready to move in until late February of this year. This summer, workers finally fitted shop windows to the retail units on the ground floor, where a “To let” sign has recently appeared.

“Designing the project was like solving a Rubik’s Cube”

Ensconced in a recess of the brick wall at the back of the private garden shared by the residents of the new social housing complex, a statue of the Virgin Mary gazes protectively over their homes. A plaque in Irish and in English explains that the statue was originally erected within the 1960s flats, following a tradition established in many Dublin public housing projects following the Catholic Marian Year of 1954.

Talina Hendrick said the reinstatement of the statue was a highlight of the project and showed the views of residents were taken into account. Another example is the playground they had asked for on behalf of their children.

Talking to project architects Louise Cotter and Denis Byrne, their attention to detail is evident. Byrne said this was shared with their client. “DCC had a desire and an ambition that this would be an exemplary project both for their regeneration but also for their social housing provision,” Byrne said.

The architects were required to consult with residents, showing them models and laying down tape on the floor of a community centre to simulate the future shape of their homes. Environmentally, the project meets the near-zero emission building standard.

The architects worked within the pre-approved masterplan, which provided for six-storey structures restoring the alignment and grandeur of the original Georgian street. To fit the residential, commercial and community elements within these constraints while under pressure from multiple stakeholders was “like solving a Rubik’s Cube,” Cotter said. “You have to devise a few clear moves, which can survive the whole process and are actually leading to a very understandable project at the end of the day.”

Those core design elements were the first floor-level garden; an apartment format that avoided long corridors; and the loggia – long, recessed balconies along the façade inspired by the decks on the old flats but now accessible privately by residents only. The loggia “screens people from the extremely busy and noisy street down below,” Cotter explained.

The design of the common areas is not just intended to look nice. “The building is great, but one issue that needs to be highlighted is the drugs,” a resident who gave his name as Thomas told me.

Deck access in old Dublin Corporation flats, while providing a great place for neighbours to chat, has also been associated with anti-social behaviour. Unrestricted access sometimes forces residents to walk past people using the common areas for all kinds of unsavoury activities. As the old remaining flats emptied out across the street, their staircases and the stoops of disused ground-floor bedsits have become meeting points for groups who gather there to drink, use or sell drugs. 

Now access-controlled grand staircases at either end of Dominick Hall lead to the residents-only common areas, which are all above ground level. The architects also insisted on six cores with lift and stair shafts each serving just two apartments per floor. “It’s a topic of huge debate, what is the most economical plan for apartments,” Cotter said. “With the support of the client, we resisted long corridors, like hotels, which are very alien and sometimes frightening spaces to be in.”

“[On each floor] you’ve got two apartments sharing a lift, which may be anathema, sometimes, to a developer. In fact, it’s quite economical because you just don’t have acres of circulation space to heat or maintain. And it’s more neighbourly and friendly,” she added. This results in more space for what matters: apartments and recreational outdoor space.

The finished apartments-over-shops block is now flanked by five mews-like townhouses on one side, and a bolder granite-clad section on the other, marking the corner with Parnell Street in a tight corner. There, the architects located more specialised apartments such as those with extra accessibility features.

For residents, the improvement on their previous homes in the now abandoned flats across the street represents a giant step. For everyone else, there has been a striking improvement to the neighbourhood’s architecture. 

*****

If the quality of Dominick Street’s new homes is a success, the 19 years it has taken to regenerate just over one third of the site’s existing housing stock have been a fiasco. What can we learn from this experience as large-scale social development is needed to meet housing needs?

The first decade was lost to a PPP model dependent on property prices to incentivise developers’ participation. The understanding was that they would profit from the homes they would build on a privatised portion of previously publicly-owned land.

After 10 years of full reliance on the private sector to deliver social housing (think Part V acquisitions and Housing Assistance Payments), the Government recently returned to PPPs. It signed a first contract in March 2019 with Comhar Housing, a consortium including Macquarie Capital, Sisk, Choice Housing Ireland and Oaklee Housing. Later that year, a second bundle was awarded to the Torc Housing Partnership, which includes investors Equitix and Kajima; builders JJ Rhatigan and OHL; Derwent Facilities Management; and Tuath Housing, with debt funding from Nord/LB and Bank of Ireland.

 A spokesperson for the Department of Housing told me that the new model is different:

“To date, the contracts for two bundles in the current PPP programme have been entered into. These utilise what is termed an ‘availability-based’ PPP model, in which a private sector company designs, builds, finances, maintains and operates the social housing units in return for a monthly unitary charge payment. This payment commences upon completion of the units, and runs for 25 years from the completion of construction on each site. It incorporates all construction, maintenance and life-cycle costs for 25 years under the contract. This PPP model is based on a project company building housing units on State land and managing them for 25 years by way of a licence. After this period has completed, the units are part of the relevant local authority’s social housing stock.”

The spokesperson added that the private partner carries the full risk because there is no upfront capital investment by the State, and payments start only after construction is complete:

“The private partner is fully incentivised to deliver assets on budget and on time. In addition, the monthly unitary charge payment is subject to performance of required services and availability of the homes, with deductions to these payments being applied where required standards are not met.”

Palcic of the University of Limerick said that a third social housing PPP bundle was now in procurement and three more in preparation, indicating that the model was becoming a more regular form of financing for this need. 

Compared with Celtic Tiger-era PPPs, Palcic said: “The big difference is the structure. The National Development Finance Agency (NDFA) is responsible for procuring those on behalf of the different councils; it’s the financial advisor; and it’s bringing all of its expertise on delivering PPP projects for a good few years now, and managing contracts as well. It’s got an awful lot of experience, particularly, with social infrastructure like school buildings.”

“The NDFA, in fairness, are very good at what they do.”

Dónal Palcic

He added that this centralised approach had proved more efficient than previous experience of each government department trying to procure its own PPP contracts, such as Education for schools or Communications for broadband. Palcic also noted that the NDFA had successfully handled the collapse of PPP school contractor Carillion: “Normally, that would fall back on the State and it hasn’t,” he said, with no payments made on unfinished buildings. 

“The NDFA, in fairness, are very good at what they do,” Palcic observed.

He added that until we can look back on the first bundle of schools delivered under an availability-based PPP at the end of its contract in 2027, the jury is out on whether this model offers better value than direct development by public authorities. This is compounded by difficulties Palcic has experienced, just like me, in accessing the detailed figures used by State authorities to evaluate contracts.

A mid-term review of early school PPPs was published last year but did not constitute a full value-for-money analysis, he argued. “They were comparing the capital costs of constructing the five PPP schools to four ‘traditionally procured’ schools at the same time,” Palcic said. “But they compared the capital cost for the PPP project in NPV [net present value] terms over a 25-year period versus the traditional schools in NPV terms over the construction period, which is a year or a year and a half.”

Over 25 years, he expects PPPs will come out more expensive. “But they’re also, I think, better maintained,” Palcic said. “The PPP schools – if you walked into one now that it’s 20 years old, it looks brand new.” This is because maintenance, especially preventative actions, such as repainting and replacements, take place at pre-defined contractual dates. 

“If you look at a school that was built traditionally 20 years ago, they get their grants and that grant doesn’t cover half of what they need to be able to do as a school. It’s probably all going to operational stuff and the place looks like it’s falling apart,” he added. On balance, PPPs “might be a little bit gold-plated, but you’re definitely getting a better quality asset, I would say, because you’re having to build in life-cycle operation and maintenance.”

One of the lessons to be learned from this new form of PPPs, Palcic said, is that directly procured buildings, too, should incorporate a plan for long-term maintenance. “Don’t just think ‘Let’s get it built and forget about it’,” he said. 

This will now be a major challenge for the new homes on Dominick Street. As resident Talina Hendrick put it: “Everything is beautiful. We have to keep it beautiful.”

Cost accountability vs cost of delays

The second decade of this regeneration project was, in turn, drawn out by four years of back-and-forth between Dublin City Council and the Department of Environment, which encompassed housing at the time, over the project’s cost and funding requirements. This oversight has since transferred to the redefined Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

The Department spokesperson confirmed that a four-stage approval process remains in place for each direct-funded social housing construction project to ensure value for money under the Government’s Capital Works Management Framework. The Department’s social housing delivery team, including architectural and quantity surveyor advisors, reviews an initial capital appraisal submission to establish the business case; costings at the pre-planning and pre-tender stages; and gives the stage-four green light at the time of tender approval.

In addition, the spokesperson said the Department ensures all projects comply with the Government-wide Public Spending Code (PSC): 

“The PSC sets out the value for money requirements for the evaluation, planning and management of public investment projects and covers the life cycle of a project and refers to the series of steps and activities to take proposals from concept to completion and evaluation. Projects vary in size and complexity but all projects can be mapped to the following project life-cycle structure:

  • Strategic assessment;
  • Preliminary business case;
  • Final business case (including design, procurement strategy and tendering);
  • Implementation;
  • Review;
  • Ex-post evaluation.

The scale and detail of evaluation, planning and management of public investment are commensurate with the scale of the proposal under consideration.”

This shows clear intent from the Government in maintaining multiple checks on the financial accountability of taxpayer-funded social housing development, which means none of the steps that delayed the construction of Dominick Hall are likely to be removed.

At least the Department’s comprehensive response shows its ability to communicate the requirements quickly and clearly, which hopefully now works the same way when dealing with local authorities and approved housing bodies. The history documented in the Dominick Street file shows that Dublin City Council was not prepared for the level of scrutiny applied by the Department. However, it does not tell us which side was more responsible for this lack of awareness.

Project architect Denis Byrne says there are lessons to be learned from a process where, after being contracted to deliver a defined project, he was still being asked to simulate other potential uses for the site in an effort to demonstrate that the already-decided plan was worth the money. 

“We kind of understand why these stress tests and cost-benefit analyses need to be done by central government if they’re spending €35 to 40 million of our money,” he said. “But I think it wasted six months and I don’t know how many millions that might have cost.”

As national policy is now to speed up housing delivery, Byrne said this should be addressed as one of the bottlenecks he has observed. “Certainly, procurement of the design teams is one; then, planning and all of that; but then there’s the funding issues, funding decision-making and cost-benefit analyses. There’s a lot of fat time built into it that isn’t actually productive.”

*****

Dominick Street Lower itself offers a benchmark to measure improvement on all those issues. The vacant site next to Dominick Hall is next. The Department of Education obtained planning permission for a 16-classroom school there in February 2020 and invited tenders for construction one year later. The new building is due to accommodate Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire, which has been using temporary rented premises for nearly 20 years. On March 7, local Fianna Fáil Senator Mary Fitzpatrick asked for an update from the Minister for Education.

“Those tenders were responded to and submitted. I understand that after the tenders were submitted, the successful tender was selected and has been sent to the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform,” Fitzpatrick said. “My heart sank when I heard that the project is now on hold. It is on hold in the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform and it is a spending issue. Spending and costs come in many different forms. There is the cost of a lack of quality of life and a loss of education. There is the cost of a loss of vibrancy in our core city centre. There is a cost to the children, the teachers and the parents.”

Minister of State at the Department of Justice James Browne was on parliamentary questions duty in the Seanad that day and replied: “The design team stage 2(b) confirmations and the completion of the prequalification process were completed on September 23, 2022 and the project commenced the tender stage. Tenders were returned on January 16, 2023 and a tender report was received by the Department in February 2023 and is currently under review. A tender stage normally takes between eight and 12 months to complete. The design team estimated a 24-month construction period.”

Fitzpatrick described her party colleague’s response as “insulting” and urged DPER to take the project off hold immediately. “We want a meaningful reply and do not want to hear ministers talking about the regeneration of the north inner city when there is a proposal on their desks which could be awarded immediately for a tender to commence construction for a new 16-classroom school which would deal with both the educational and social regeneration of the north inner city,” she said.

Browne had little comfort to offer in his comeback, simply saying that the Department of Education was “assessing its work programme and priorities in the context of its available funding. It is also engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform in respect of capital funding pressures, in order to continue to be able to adequately support the operation of the school system with the roll-out of school building projects to tender and construction in 2023, and to minimise project delays to the greatest extent possible”.

Retrofit rather than rebuild

The prospect of additional housing on Dominick Street Lower, meanwhile, seems even further away. 

The partly boarded up, vacated flats on the western side of the street, across the way from Dominick Hall, face an uncertain future. Those 90 homes were initially part of the demolition plan, but Dublin City Council is now reconsidering this for environmental reasons. In response to my freedom of information request, Dublin City Architect Ali Grehan wrote:

“As with other flat complexes, options DCC would consider in regenerating complexes include demolition and reconstruction, and deep-retrofit of existing blocks. While demolition and reconstruction has been considered environmentally sustainable given the new buildings must be constructed to high energy performance standard (Nearly Zero Energy Buildings) generating low emissions in use, this omits consideration of emissions generated in the demolition and construction process. There is growing understanding around the need to assess the whole life carbon (WLC) implications of development. WLC includes emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole life cycle of a building or infrastructure, ie embodied carbon, and the emissions generated through use of the building, ie operational carbon.”

The vacated 1960s flats on the western side of Dominick Street Lower now await redevelopment. Photo: Thomas Hubert

The local authority is now preparing to include those existing blocks in its deep retrofitting plan. Grehan said they “present a unique opportunity to undertake an exemplar climate-resilient housing project” because they are currently vacant and already make good use of the space on the site, with little density to be gained from demolition and reconstruction.

The site could also serve as a laboratory for the city and its contractors to learn the best retrofitting techniques: “The potential to retrofit three identical flat blocks offers the opportunity to pursue different retrofit solutions to each block which can then be measured and compared for optimum efficiency,” Grehan added.

Last year, Dublin City Council obtained funding from DPER to commission a “digital twin” of the three blocks at Dominick Street West from the Scottish specialist firm Integrated Environmental Solutions. This allowed computer modelling to simulate four levels of retrofitting, from shallow works to stripping the flats to their bare shells and rebuilding around them. The study published in February concluded: 

“The four retrofit strategies have been compared in terms of whole-life carbon impact as well as potential BER and indicative costs associated with the energy efficiency measures required by each strategy. The overall best-performing strategy is Strategy 3: Deep Retrofit, which whole-life carbon emissions are the lowest at every life period under assessment compared to any other strategy. Totally, over a 60-year life period, the block can achieve about 85 per cent reduction in cumulative emissions with a deep retrofit compared to the Baseline model.”

Dublin City Council is now preparing its stage one funding application to the Department of Housing for this project. Grehan outlined the new plan as follows:

“While the intention is to minimise physical internal remodelling (other than retrofit works) in order to minimise embodied carbon, this has to be balanced against need to provide accessible homes to decent space standards. The degree of internal remodelling will be assessed as part of the current work, however, pairs of one-room bedsits on the ground floor of each block will be amalgamated to provide one-bedroom flats. Therefore the 30 bedsits will reduce to 15 one-bedroom homes giving a total of 75 homes.”

This work will now take several years to complete, by which time total costs across both sides of the street could easily exceed €100 million.

At that point, there will be 147 homes on the site where 198 used to stand. They may be top quality and benefit from the addition of a new school, but it is now clear that the regeneration of Dominick Street Lower will stretch to a quarter of a century at best.

Further reading

Thomas Hubert: Who will run the much-needed public-public partnership for social housing?