Dublin and Manchester are expanding at such a rapid pace that many developers believe the only way for them to continue to compete as major European cities is to build tall. So what are the prospects of seeing more high-rise office space? Well, that's two quite different stories …
Dublin has not had a good experience with tall buildings. For a start, it only has one - the 16-storey, 60 m high Liberty Hall. And it's not even the tallest building in Ireland, being surpassed in stature by Cork's 64 m tall County Hall.
The capital city's only other flirtation with tall buildings was the construction of seven 16-storey residential towers known as the Ballymun Flats in the 1960s. It was an unparalleled disaster that saw about 17,000 people relocated from the city centre to a then desolate area and housed in concrete towers dubbed "the most unsightly edifice to blight the Irish landscape".
Times have changed. The Ballymun Flats have been demolished and Dublin's skyline is evolving with tall buildings making a comeback. Three towers ranging from 27 to 35 storeys high have been granted planning permission while another three are working their way through the planning process. Most of these towers comprise residential and leisure use only.
However, developers are now looking at the development of office towers and say the future vibrancy and economic competitiveness of Dublin depends on it. This raises two questions: can the office market sustain such development and can a city that got its tall building strategy so wrong make it work second time round?
"We are determined that the city won't change to any great extent as we are conscious of the city's skyline and the unique Georgian core," says Dublin city council manager John Fitzgerald. "But we have also made it clear that we actively encourage higher buildings." The high-rise residential buildings that have been granted planning permission in Dublin include a 32-storey building next to Heuston train station and a 120 m, 35-storey tower in Dublin's Docklands that is known as the U2 tower since it will also house the group's new recording studios. Further afield, property developer Noel Smyth has secured planning permission for a 24-storey tower at Sandyford Industrial Estate in south Dublin.
The increasing popularity of flats in tall buildings is driven by population increase as well as changing attitudes to high-rise living. Ireland's population, about 3.7 million now, is forecast to reach 5 million in 2015 and 6 million by 2050. Marie Hunt, director of research at CB Richard Ellis, says taller buildings are essential. "Dublin has no option but to go up, otherwise there will be sprawl from here to Athlone," she says.
The clamour for towers can be heard in the office market too, as well as criticism about the council's "incoherent" policies on office skyscrapers. Robert Tincknell, a director at Ireland's largest development company, Treasury Holdings, says: "The policies the council and the Dublin Docklands Authority have on densities and height are overdue for a major review. What has been identified are tiny pockets of buildings that are slightly taller than others."
Another Irish developer who did not wish to be named says: "It's only a matter of time before tall office buildings are built in Dublin. It won't be easy though. Our office development is only a couple of floors and it was a real struggle to get that approved."
Fitzgerald rejects the criticisms levelled against the city's tall building policy. "We are trying to balance a coherent strategy on the one hand with the sometimes fairly aggressive drive by developers to put towers on every development site in town. There's a middle ground that we are steadily moving towards," he says.
He adds that taller buildings do not necessarily equate to greater density. "We can point to a lot of examples around the city centre where there are good densities at around the six or seven-storey mark that don't interfere with Dublin's low skyline," he says.
Same old storeys
The office developments under way at the moment are indeed only around that height. In the Docklands, Sean Dunne's Riverside IV building, where law firm Matheson Ormsby Prentice is taking 11,610 m2, is eight storeys tall. Private equity firm Quinlan Private is developing an 8000 m² building, the Observatory at Sir John Rogerson's Quay, that is six storeys high. It will be completed in July. And Treasury Holding is developing a 21,367 m², eight-storey office at Spencer Dock, which is prelet to PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Tincknell says a major transport study conducted by the Irish government called Transport 2021 identified Spencer Dock and the Docklands as a whole as a key transport node. "In the next 10 years, Spencer Dock will become the most connected place in Ireland and yet at the moment planners continue to work off average plot ratios and average heights," he says.
He adds that the Docklands is a large site capable of accommodating a substantial increase in density and "a serious addition to height". "If Dublin wants to compete at a world level and as a major European city it should consider its skyline," says Tincknell.
Some argue, however, that tall buildings in Dublin may have less to do with considerations of design and density and more to do with questions of commercial viability. John McLaughlin, director of architecture at Dublin Docklands Authority, says: "There is doubt that the market can provide tall commercial buildings speculatively and there are as yet few companies big enough to occupy one as a headquarters for their sole use."
Dublin's office market is just beginning its recovery after the 2001 dotcom crash. CBRE reports that there has been 45,000 m² of office take-up in the first quarter of 2006 - the highest level of first-quarter take-up in three years. Supply of grade A office space remains tight, which is leading to rental growth, and prime office rents in Dublin are now about 592 euros/m².
But even though the occupier market is picking up, lenders are still cautious about lending to any office scheme, regardless of whether it is high rise or low rise, unless there is a significant prelet. Owen O'Neill, director of lending at Anglo Irish Bank in Dublin, says it has not funded any speculative office developments and would be wary of doing so. "If someone walked in today and said, ‘I want to start building 200,000 to 300,000 ft2 in a tall building next month', I am still not sure we would be that keen to back it," says O'Neill. He adds that the developer would also need to be a proven operator with property holdings and secure cash flows that could be used to secure the loan.
Three tall buildings are coming out of the ground; but with developers saying it is not enough, the council saying it is protecting the city's heritage and lenders saying tall buildings without a prelet may be difficult to fund, it seems the future of Dublin's skyline remains uncertain.
Developers in Manchester are increasingly excited by the idea of skyscrapers, seeing them as symbols of the city's growing status and achievement. "Manchester has international aspirations and is rapidly becoming an international quality city," says Merepark director Richard Peel. His company is one half of the joint venture Inacity, which has planning permission to build a 60-storey, £220m tower next to Piccadilly station, with 700 apartments anchored by a 220-bed hotel.
Yet although a range of exceptionally tall buildings is planned for the city, most are mixed use and dominated by residential units and hotels rather than offices - the latest is the 171 m Beetham Tower, (half Hilton hotel, half residential), which celebrated a topping out ceremony just last month. The only pure office tower with space available is Bruntwood's refurbishment of Piccadilly Plaza. It was recently renamed City Tower and is 28 storeys high.
Peter Crowther is sales and development director at Bruntwood. He says the construction costs measured against the returns possible for residential development mean it is unlikely that new towers will be built solely for office use in the city in the near future. "It just doesn't work at the moment in Manchester unless we were to see some significant rental growth or demand from an organisation for a pre-let."
Peter Gallagher, head of Dunlop Haywards' north-west operation, says the cost of refurbishment versus new build has made City Tower viable whereas a new build might not have been. He says that an issue with most towers is that of limited floorplates: "More and more of our enquiries now are saying they want their space to be on as few levels as possible. There is an immediate conflict with the idea of going into a tower because they tend to be high and slim."
City Tower's floorplates are 835 m² and Crowther confirms that lettings done since refurbishment began have been for up to two floors, rather than larger occupiers.
Meanwhile, plans for a 35-storey office tower at new business quarter Spinningfields are also progressing. Originally, developer Allied London wanted to build a Foster-designed sloping tower for 60,390 m2 of offices. This has now been redesigned without the slope and Allied London is contemplating changing it to a mixed-use building.
Graham Skinner, a director at Allied London, says the developer would be prepared to speculatively develop 50% of the tower but would need a pre-let to trigger the build. "We are working on a couple of schemes and we'll decide which one to put in for planning. We're looking at some other conceptions," he says.
The most dramatic feature on the city's skyline at the moment is the Beetham Organisation's 47-storey 301 Deansgate Tower. Hilton is to open a 279-bed hotel and all the tower's 219 apartments have been pre-sold. Beetham also has the option of building 6130 m2 of offices there but is now reviewing its options.
Low levels means fewer lifts
Even though his proposed tower, Albany Crown, is an £83m mixed-use development, Chris Nisbet, chairman of Albany Assets, has innovative plans for the 10-storey office element that he plans to wrap around the base of the tower. He says the traffic flow into offices means it is sensible to keep them at the lower levels. "If you have them high up, you need even more lifts and the more lifts you've got the less useable space you've got."
The office floorplates will be 1395 m2 in size and Nisbet intends to break two of the floors down into flexible grade A office space offering between 185 m2 and 465 m2. These will be available as "lease purchases", which tenants will have an option to buy at any time based on prices fixed at the start of the tenancy. Nisbet says not only will this help those who want to put their office into a self-invested personal pension, it offers an alternative exit strategy. "If you outgrow the office, then rather than paying to get out of the lease, you can buy the office, then put it on the market and sell it."
He believes this is an ideal opportunity for companies that want to move to Manchester and need grade A office space but want to test the water rather than commit for 15 or 25 years.
John Adams, a partner at Drivers Jonas, has worked on most of Manchester's tall buildings applications, including the Beetham Tower, Albany's Crown building and the Eastgate Inacity Tower. He says the council always looks for exceptional architectural quality, strong regeneration benefits and highly sustainable locations often at gateways to the city centre. "Beetham is a prime example of that; it establishes an iconic entry to the city centre on Deansgate," he says. "Manchester has a particular scale of urban grain and Victorian heritage and street pattern which lends itself well to tall buildings."
Adams says the Southern Gateway area of the city is likely to be a prime area for towers. "Any future tall buildings would not be in isolation but would be part of mixed-use developments."
Dave Roscoe is city centre group leader for planning at Manchester council. He says all modern tower developments in the city are mixed use. "We don't really have any modern office towers. There has been talk of one in Spinningfields but it has been all talk and no delivery. There are fairly obvious reasons for that in that no one is going to build [a tower] speculatively so you need a substantial end user. It doesn't mean it wouldn't work."
Inacity's Peel says there is no intention of adding offices to the 60-storey tower at Piccadilly. "There will be office developments in the area and fundamentally the hotel is there to service them. However, we won't rule out looking at other schemes in that area for offices."
Although Manchester is likely to see many more tall buildings, those looking for office space at the top of towers will have a hard time finding it once Bruntwood lets its space. The financial viability of residential and mixed-use towers has so far held developers back from building pure office skyscrapers. There are plenty of office buildings being developed up to 20 storeys that would, in any other city, be considered tall. In Manchester, the scale is different.
Skyline May 2006
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