Twenty-five years ago, Group 91’s Temple Bar Architectural Framework Plan was widely welcomed as a visionary approach to creating a new “cultural quarter” for Dublin in one of the most historic areas of the city. Not since the 1963 Planning Act came into force had any such three-dimensional plan been produced for a city or town in Ireland. All we had previously been offered by the planners were broad-brush zoning maps.
The ‘mission statement’ of State-owned development agency Temple Bar Properties (TBP) was to develop ‘a bustling cultural, residential and small-business precinct that will attract visitors in significant numbers.’ Under the radar, however, cowboy publicans cashed in on eye-watering tax incentives available to extend existing pubs or develop ‘hotels’ primarily as vehicles to obtain full seven-day licences for bars and nightclubs. All of these plans were approved by Dublin City Council and facilitated by TBP and its sister agency, Temple Bar Renewal, which not once used its explicit power to refuse ‘use approval’ for new licensed premises.
Thus, Temple Bar could never become ‘a working model of sustainable development in an urban context,’ as then Minister for the Environment and current Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin ludicrously proclaimed in 1996. In fact, it’s the very opposite of what Howlin had in mind. Not only has the bohemian character of the area that thrived under CIÉ’s ownership been obliterated, but what’s been put in its place is a boisterous bastard changeling. Publicans are now the oligarchs of Temple Bar. They make vast sums of money from selling over-priced drink, mostly to gullible tourists, and think nothing of polluting the public realm with noise from heavily-amplified bands.
Take the Bad Ass on Crown Alley. It was turned into a fake-traditional Irish bar without planning permission, yet Dublin City Council – the planning authority – has no problem allowing its operators to take over part of Temple Bar Square. Like several other pubs, the Bad Ass has external loudspeakers to pump out loud music into Crown Alley and the square. The Old Storehouse does the same, as does the Quays pub on the square, which nearly always has its front door clipped open. Added to all of this quite deliberate ‘entertainment noise breakout’ is the appalling racket made by a four-piece rock band in front of Crown Alley Telephone Exchange with their high-octane amplifiers blasting noise all over the area.
Council tenants moving into refurbished Crampton Buildings are fearful that their homes will be uninhabitable unless action is taken to curb noise in the vicinity, including from the raucous Oliver St John Gogarty and Auld Dubliner pubs.
Temple Bar has long been a byword for drunkeness, public urination, graffiti vandalism and drug addicts shooting up in lanes. During festivals, notably around St Patrick’s Day, it becomes a heaving mass of revellers and their rubbish.
None of this was meant to happen. The ‘vision’ sold to those of us who bought into it in the mid-1990s was more Covent Garden than Skid Row. It was supposed to be unique, cultural, idiosyncratic and undefiled by generic, multinational ‘brands’. Yet there is now a Tesco in the former ESB showrooms on Fleet Street, a Starbucks on Crown Alley, a Costa coffee shop on Eustace Street and, worst of all, a McDonald’s outlet on Temple Bar Square that wants to be open 24 hours a day. The 24 cultural outfits in the area now want to get their hands on whatever pot of money is raised by Temple Bar Cultural Trust (TBCT) – firmly in Dublin City Council’s control – selling off properties, so that they can sustain themselves in future.
Several of the original ‘cultural projects’ didn’t survive. Arthouse, billed as a ‘multi-media centre for the arts’ was the first to go, followed by the Viking Adventure in former SS Michael and John’s Church, which was gutted by TBP. Designyard, which featured the best of Irish design, later became the Culture Box, headquarters of TBCT, while TBP’s former headquarters on Eustace Street – once the home of a lord mayor of Dublin – is occupied by a Thai massage parlour. Shop windows of the Green Building have been boarded up since Haus moved out seven years ago, while its wind turbines rust away on the roof. And Eden, once a valued restaurant, now operates as a pub, even though it has no planning permission.
Policing is of the ‘light touch’ variety. Gardaí on the beat regard it as normal that intolerable levels of noise emanate from licensed premises, or from buskers in the streets. ‘It’s an entertainment zone – what do you expect?’ they would say.
Although senior council officials pledged in 2014 to work with Temple Bar Residents on a wide range of issues, there’s been precious little sign of action since then. It doesn’t seem to matter that the area is home to more than 2,000 people.
The latest threat involves wholesale conversion of apartments into short-term holiday lets via Airbnb and other agencies. Last Christmas, one of these operated as a brothel for two weeks, while others are regularly used by students as ‘party flats’. Another flat (in Crown Alley) was advertised for sale earlier this year on Daft.ie as an ‘investment opportunity’, having earned more than €79,000 in the previous 12 months as an Airbnb unit – a use the city council deemed to require planning permission.
Perhaps we should all turn our homes over to Airbnb and move elsewhere, living on the ill-gotten gains and leaving Temple Bar to its fate as an utterly failed experiment in urban regeneration, whatever about the quality of Group 91’s architectural ‘interventions’.