There is an obvious solution to Dublin’s capacity problem: move Dublin Port and develop the greatest natural asset the city has into a new gleaming city. We are one of the last major cities to have a port on the most valuable prime land. Capacity constraints are now the biggest threat to Ireland’s prosperity — much more than Brexit.
Yet there is a solution staring us right in the face.
Before we explore the imperative of moving the port, let us acknowledge that Dublin Port management is doing a fine job in terms of managing trade in and out of the country. The problem with Dublin Port is that it is in the wrong place.
More significantly, the opportunity cost of keeping the Port there is enormous. The opportunity cost is the cost associated with not doing something alternative. It is the cost you incur when you assess what else you could be doing with a resource and how the present use of that resource best fits in with you other objectives.
In a city with a massive housing crisis, the opportunity cost of 640 acres of prime land occupied by a port that employs only 140 people is enormous. Mirroring the densities of Smithfield for example, we could build 40,000 units and still have over 220 acres (which is ten times the size of St Stephen’s Green) for offices, retail, museums, sports facilities, parks, cafés, bars, clubs — all the things that a city needs.
We have a crippling housing shortage, house prices are going through the roof, rents are skyrocketing and capacity constraints are costing us a fortune, particularly around Dublin. Rather than developing the jewel on the sea to the east of O’Connell Bridge, we are sprawling to the West, North and South. As a result, an increasing amount of us are commuting huge distances as a giant suburban arc stretches from Drogheda in the north, west to Port Laois and south to Arklow.
This low density approach makes public transport very expensive, makes us more car dependent and makes planning for schools and hospitals contingent on where developers put the next remote estates.
An obvious medium term solution to Dublin’s housing and planning problem encompasses a vision for the city that completely reorients the city towards one of its most obvious natural resources: the sea.
A clear solution to Dublin’s congestion, high rents and office capacity problems is to move Dublin port past Balbriggan, integrate the new port with the motorway system and reclaim the entire area for high-density development.
We could build a new Dublin where the port is at the moment and create an entirely new city for the 21st century.
All over the world, great maritime cities realise that the waterfront is the city’s most valuable land. Oslo – a city with worse weather than ours – moved its old port and reclaimed this prime land for housing, offices, shops, cafes and restaurants. In Norway, the sea is regarded as the focal point of the development. It is something to be faced, enjoyed and used, rather than something to turn your back on.
Oslo port is now home to parks, museums, little harbours and thousands of tourists, as well architecturally exciting residential developments and state of the art offices. It also has low-rent artistic spaces, clubs and late night bars and cafes. These are things that Dublin needs because cities are places that people have to be able to afford to work in, as well as hang out in.
Copenhagen likewise moved its port and liberated hundreds of acres of prime development land thereby entirely re-orienting the city. Amsterdam has also moved the port out of the old city — as has Bilbao and countless other European cities.
Dublin needs to do the same.
At the moment Dublin Port is the greatest waste of prime land imaginable. The main part on the north side of the river comprises some 205 hectares (510 acres) at the end of East Wall and North Wall from Alexandra Quay. The port on the south side of the river at the beginning of the Poolbeg peninsula is much smaller but is still 51 hectares or 130 acres of prime development land with waterfront aspects within a mile or so of the existing city centre.
Dublin Port only employs 140 people. This is testament to the Port’s efficiency and productivity. But it also implies that the dislocation costs of moving the port are very small, given the huge potential prize.
The prize is eliminating the housing crisis, building a new sustainable development that is close to the city, cutting out commuting and creating a new gleaming city on the water.
The State could make a fortune on the trade because the price of land in the port based on present valuations is between €8-10 million an acre. Industrial land north of Balbriggan is trading at around €20,000 an acre. Therefore, the State could sell the Port lands for €6 to 7 billion, and build a new port at a fraction of the cost.
The under-utilized Port Tunnel gives the new port city ideal initial infrastructure.
And because the Port is doing a good job, is well-managed and is making a profit, the same expert management are well–placed to deal with a move. Remember the Port is owned by you. The State is the shareholder and that means you own it. This type of deal makes common sense as well as commercial sense.
Brexit implies we should move with speed because we have to build our own infrastructure in the face of political shocks over which we have no power. Brexit makes it imperative that we make Dublin the most exciting, most productive, most interesting city to live, invest and work in anywhere in North Western Europe.
Furthermore, looking out forty years, it’s highly likely on present demographic trends that Ireland will be united economically and politically. Therefore the Dublin/Belfast corridor will be by far and away the most commercially important and heavily populated part of the country. An international state of the art port that serves this region situated around the North East coast is an absolute must.
Transforming Dublin would be a millennial project and would take time but this is what great cities do: they build and they build for the future with a one hundred year vision.
Think about the Dublin we know and celebrate now. All the squares, all the streets, all the landmark building, virtually all of what we now call Dublin City Centre was built in the 1700s. It was the great project of the Anglo/Irish aristocracy — the original robber barons.
O’Connell Street, Dame Street, College Green, Henry Street, the Quays, Grafton Street and virtually everything around them, including the front face of Trinity College (1759), City Hall (1769), The Custom House (1781), the Four Courts (1786), Leinster House (began 1745), Parliament House (Bank of Ireland College Green) (1729), the Guinness Brewery (1759), Abbey Street, Leeson Street, Baggot Street, Merrion Street, Dawson Street, Henrietta Street and everything else in between were built in the 1700s.
If they could build a magnificent city then, why can’t we build a beautiful new city now?
This is what serious countries do; they do serious things. It’s about time we got serious too, isn’t it?