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Dublin's 523-Acre Golden Opportunity: Moving The Port, Piece By Piece

It has long been argued that moving Dublin Port — and freeing up between 500 and 600 acres of the best-located land in Dublin — is a potential solution to the city's development crisis.

Now a new masterplan for Dublin Port — open for consultation until the end of this month — points to the future for 523 acres of port land that has been called Ireland's most valuable real estate and which could be developed.

Does it go far enough in releasing land, and how much further could it go?


It sounds so obvious: the port of Dublin's 650-acre estate is probably the best-located land in Ireland. Why not move the port, freeing land to build the office floorspace and apartments the city needs?

The idea has a long history. As far back as 2006-08 it was seriously argued the port could move elsewhere, possibly to Bremore. Ten years later the debate is still alive, with Trinity College economist David McWilliams arguing that moving the port would at a stroke create opportunities for 40,000 new homes, and cut the volume of congestion-creating and polluting long-distance commuting.

Oslo and Copenhagen both successfully moved their ports to open up vast new development zones, why not Dublin, McWilliams argued? Since, he said, the super-efficient port employs just 140 people it surely makes moving the "obvious medium-term solution".

Last week's announcement that two prime docklands sites (outside the port) totalling just short of 6 acres were for sale for around €110M, suggest that selling the port would be hugely moneyspinning. At €18M an acre, any sale would easily cover the cost of building a new one. Even if the vast portfolio sells at half or a quarter of the current open market price in developed docklands, sale would raise €6B-7B, McWilliams estimated in 2017.

The port authority has hit back, vigorously attacking the valuations and the maths, and mocking the idea as Port McWilliams.

"Whatever else Dublin Port is, I have come to realise that it is a magnet for daft notions and opportunism," Dublin Port Company Chief Executive Eamonn O'Reilly wrote in February.

A pipe dream? Maybe just a little, but the new port masterplan updating the 2012 document, offers more than some grounds for hope. It proposes no less than a slice-by-slice relocation of port activities off-site.

Dublin port tunnel

Developers looking for signs of an immediate green light for sale of the Dublin port estate will be disappointed by the plan. But if they read a little further — and exercise a little patience — they might find plenty to intrigue.

1. An end to Dublin Bay Land Reclamation removes a massive obstacle

The exising port masterplan had proposed reclaiming another 50 acres from Dublin Bay: the new plan doesn't and port officials have clarified that the idea is "dead and will never be revisited," according to the Irish Times. Had the reclamation gone ahead the port would have been politically and financially committed to staying put, but now it won't, it isn't.

2. The port has already started relocating activities off-site — and says it will move more

Construction of a 106-acre inland port on two sites close to the airport has already begun, allowing non-core activities to be moved away from the dockside. This will continue and, if the numbers in the plan are any guide, will continue on a substantial scale. The document identifies a list of development sites adding up to 523 acres and notes that "the development of many of the sites ... will require the relocation of port-related but non-core activities out of Dublin Port and to other locations." Even allowing for intensification of port activities in new locations, that means they will be needing a great deal of land somewhere else.


3. Serious question marks over the future use of some sites

The iron law of property economics says that, sooner or later, high-value land uses replace low-value land uses. There are a lot of low-value land uses on the port estate, such as container storage. Moreover, the masterplan identifies several large sites for which the port envisages drastically reduced need.

The 50-acre site H is reserved for the import of petrol and aviation fuel, but the plan said it is probably 15 acres larger than needed today, and in the future will be much smaller. "There is uncertainty about the scale of the petroleum importation business through Dublin Port in the long-term of the Masterplan," it said.

Site J, totalling 24 acres, is in a similar vanishing sector, handling bulk solids. "The Bulk Solid commodities shipped through Dublin Port are ex-growth. Some specific commodities may, over the remaining period of the Masterplan, decline to zero," the masterplan noted.

Capital Dock, Dublin

4. The port is already planning to cosy up to the city

A key element of the masterplan is to integrate the port more fully with the life of the city. Once the doors are open, the hidden world of the port will be harder to protect from alternative uses. The state-owned port is likely to come under greater political pressure to make wider use of its land, as it already plans to do with a cruise liner terminal. The masterplan notes "the main attraction of the cruise industry is the generation of significant revenues for the Dublin region — the actual contribution to Dublin Port Company’s revenues is not significant." Pressure for a similar self-sacrificing approach to land could be persuasive.

The past and projected growth to 2040 is in large part due to the growth in the country’s population. In 1950, the population was 3 million and by 2040 is projected to grow to 5.6 million. Over this period, volumes through Dublin Port are projected to increase 27-fold from 2.9 million gross tonnes in 1950 to a staggering 77.2 million in 2040.

There is no doubt Dublin needs its port — and needs it more than ever. But whether all of Dublin port needs to be in Dublin remains an open question.