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Dublin’s post-Covid plans: ‘There is no vision and no strategy … our citizens are losing out’

The continuing absence of a post-Covid plan for the future of Dublin threatens its standing as a premiere tourism destination and investment location, according to a group of leading city centre retailers, hotels, cultural bodies and business organisations.

The failure to plan is compounded by the spate of violent attacks witnessed in the city over recent months, the most recent being the stabbing of a man in his 30s on Grafton Street early on Sunday.

Concerns about violence emerge as Dublin prepares to host thousands of US tourists for a high-profile American college football game between Notre Dame and Army at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

The group of Dublin businesses set out their concerns in correspondence with Dublin City Council (DCC), seen by The Irish Times, dating back to July 2021. They repeatedly warned – separate to Dublin’s drug and violence problem, lawlessness fuelled by drink and inadequate levels of policing – that the absence of a vision for coming decades endangers the city’s status as “our country’s economic and cultural capital”.

They highlighted a significant increase in antisocial behaviour requiring “an updated policy response”; concerns about the impact of outdoor hospitality introduced during the pandemic, which is “often of poor quality”, and an urgent need for agreement on acceptable standards of cleanliness because of chronic littering.

The group accepted “sporadic changes” to the city were inevitable given “Dublin’s post-Covid reality” and acknowledged challenges in particular locations. But, more recently, their concerns have concentrated around the city’s Georgian Quarter, which includes prominent cultural amenities, and the Merrion Row/Lower Baggot Street area.

Their disquiet was initially detailed in a letter to then lord mayor Alison Gilliland and council chief executive Owen Keegan on July 30th, 2021. The 18 signatories included retailers such as Brown Thomas Arnotts and Weir & Sons and hotels including The Shelbourne; The Merrion, Buswells, The Marker, The Fitzwilliam, The Conrad and the Doyle Collection.

They were supported by Dublin Chamber of Commerce; KPMG, the Convention Centre, Croke Park Stadium, the Royal Hibernian Academy, the Little Museum of Dublin and the Docklands Business Forum.

In response, DCC agreed on the need for “a comprehensive and co-ordinated post-Covid plan … especially in relation to the tourism and related sectors which are essential to the success of the Dublin economy”.

“While the city council can, and will, contribute to and implement such as strategy, a successful outcome will require a whole of Government approach. We are currently considering how this can be achieved,” Keegan said.

He strongly defended measures to facilitate outdoor hospitality, which he believed were “largely successful, particularly in terms of meeting objectives related to the reopening of our society and economy”.

The plan is understood not to have been progressed to any significant extent, despite approaches by representatives of the group to the Government. Their unease about deteriorating on-street conditions has not been assuaged.

The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) strongly echoed their concerns over lack of leadership and overall vision for Dublin “including the need for creative solutions in problem areas”.

“There is no vision and no strategy for the city, and our citizens are losing out,” RIAI president Charlotte Sheridan told The Irish Times.

“We know our citizens and visitors want to visit vibrant, liveable cities; employers want high quality places where their employees can lead full lives, and we need to make this a reality,” she added.

The RIAI was, Sheridan said, committed to working with DCC to create an environment which delivers high-quality and well-designed long-term value for the people of Dublin city and a sustainable liveable city for future generations, Sheridan said.

“As Ireland’s population continues to grow the capital city has growing demands and complex needs to create a vibrant, safe, sustainable and inclusive city,” she added.

“However, for the city to fully thrive it also needs the social, economic and cultural assets that are essential to support growing communities in their day-to-day lives.”

This includes high-quality well-designed amenities including playgrounds and parks -places which support communities, Sheridan said. “These are places where people can come together and where visitors can engage with a welcoming and well-designed Dublin.”

Sheridan noted that Dublin’s many historic and contemporary buildings need to be protected, enhanced and promoted. “There are pockets of the city where new communities have developed really well, and where existing communities and neighbourhoods have consolidated, but this is piecemeal and is not replicated across the city as a whole.”

Merrion Row was approved for a €232,000 grant from Fáilte Ireland to pave the area, which led to concerns it would become ‘a mini Temple Bar’, but this is not being proceeded with

The DCC Office of City Recovery, set up in April 2021, issued a comprehensive “update and medium term action plan” for the city but its actions were either predominantly temporary or suggested as future possibilities. It was due to cease operating at the end of 2021, but was retained. It is headed by a senior member of staff and reports to a taskforce committee, chaired by the Lord Mayor.

Some stakeholders in the Merrion Row and Lower Baggot Street fear problems are getting worse, though they recognise businesses with on-street facilities create employment and add to community life. Some set out their concerns in a submission to DCC on June 23rd, objecting to expansion of street furniture.

“The temporary outdoor dining structures put in place during Covid in the Merrion Row area are causing visual pollution and clutter with an adverse impact on the architectural fabric and character of the area,” the Shelbourne Hotel, the Merrion Hotel and Finnegan Menton Estate Agents said.

Applications to retain these have been made by Ely Wine Bar, Etto restaurant, Toners Bar, Cirillo’s restaurant, Brookwood restaurant, Doheny & Nesbitt bar, Giuseppes Fish & Chip Shop, Caffe Nero, Bang restaurant and Hugo’s restaurant.

The objectors said that while the council can be commended for responding so quickly to the Covid emergency, “an unintended consequence is that outdoor dining has now become outdoor drinking leading to antisocial behaviour in this area which heretofore has not been a problem”.

“Loud music is played through speakers from bars with drinkers blocking main footpaths and prolific alcohol branding close to schools and on the main thoroughfare to and from St Stephens’ Green and to major tourist amenities, museums and galleries,” they added.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Act sets strict regulations on placement and content of alcohol advertising in open public places and prohibits display within 200 metres of a school, creche or local authority playground. No person is permitted to “consume or attempt to consume intoxicating liquor on a road or in a public place within the functional area of the Council”.

DCC said “drinking in public outside of a licensed area is a matter for the gardaí”.

“There is an over-concentration of large pubs and restaurants in this area and the taking of public space during an emergency has led to very compressed streets with no room for cyclists or pedestrians and an intimidating atmosphere for local residents and international visitors alike,” the objectors said, noting a Fáilte Ireland tourism barometer where outdoor drinking was cited as an issue.

“We have also observed that the street alterations have led to a wholly unacceptable level of litter with dirtier streets due to the inability to clean the streets properly while the temporary structures are in place.

“This area in the Georgian Core of the city [an architectural conservation area] in our opinion it is not the place for developments of outdoor dining/drinking facilities and for the above reasons we strongly object to this application by the restaurants and bars,” they added, noting “this objection may be applied to any future applications for the same on either Merrion Row or Lower Baggot Street”.

Objectors, who spoke to The Irish Times, noted incidents of people consuming crack cocaine openly on the street; “multiple incidents of shoplifting”; and defecation in public places. They accepted at times big gatherings there are inevitable, especially around big sports events.

Merrion Row was approved for a €232,000 grant from Fáilte Ireland to pave the area, which led to concerns it would become “a mini Temple Bar”, but this is not being proceeded with.

Dariusz Jablonski, manager of Cirillo’s Restaurant, agreed there was a cleaning issue. He and his staff were constantly cleaning their area and rarely see council cleaners. There was also an antisocial problem in Dublin generally compounded by lack of a Garda presence, he said.

“It’s definitely different to a few years back … it’s not safe any more,” he added.

Restaurant staff had, he added, encountered a few very dodgy situations including glasses being thrown and a window being smashed, but it makes special efforts to ensure their customers were safe. It has 12 outdoor tables but kept them closed due to bad weather recently, which meant July turnover was down by 18-20 per cent, Jablonski said.

With space for 16 diners in front of Etto, “the tables are elegant and candlelit, seating groups of two or four diners,” explained co-owner Liz Matthews. “We use plain white umbrellas and there is no branding on any of our furniture. It’s a very clean and orderly space. Everyone is seated and is enjoying a full meal.

“It’s a lovely, calm buzz with no music and absolutely no rowdiness. We never get in the way of pedestrians and there is a great atmosphere on fine days, with people wandering by enjoying the ambience.”

She can understand, however, why there would be objections to anything associated with antisocial behaviour or lack of cleanliness.

“But surely this can be controlled by the council dealing with any problematic business individually,” Matthews said. “Most businesses want their outdoor spaces to be part of a positive improvement to the city and they can be trusted to run them responsibly. The city centre should be a social, buzzy place, like in other European cities where people sit out at all times of year with a meal or a drink or a coffee.”

A spokeswoman for Bang Restaurant did not agree with grounds for objection as they were not an issue “in this area”. Its eight on-street tables were not used in recent weeks because of bad weather, but when they were in operation they had no experience of antisocial behaviour. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” she added.

A representative of Caffe Nero said there was no problems near their business during the day. Asked if antisocial behaviour was an issue at night, she said: “Not for us. No.”

A DCC spokeswoman said the council is “working actively with business representative groups, including hospitality representatives and with Fáilte Ireland on a strategic level through various forums and operationally on a day-to-day basis for the very reason of maintaining Dublin city’s position as a premier destination for tourism, investment and enjoyment by the citizens”.

“Outdoor dining, is now an active part of the city landscape and DCC is working with businesses and business representative groups to support consistency and quality of outdoor street furniture arrangements … and are seeking to develop a higher quality, more aesthetically pleasing suite of street furniture arrangements that enhances the city,” she added.

The council will continue its efforts to addresses local concerns or issues, while enhancing the streetscape and providing for “a quality dining experience for customers”.

She accepted that many of the arrangements permitted during Covid-19 “in a time of crisis now need to be augmented to improve the quality of offering”.

“DCC is engaging with outdoor hospitality businesses across the city, including at Merrion Row and Lower Baggot Street in the context of regularising the outdoor street furniture arrangements and addressing issues that have been raised.”

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