Over the past few years a casual observer of the landscape of some of our more salubrious streets and suburbs would have seen some far-from-subtle changes.
The large gardens of the grand Edwardian and Victorian homes, with their tennis courts and vegetables gardens, their mews houses and the paddocks where they kept their ponies, have been shrinking exponentially as the value of the land they occupy soars.
Many of the mews were sold long ago when they had outlived their usefulness, the paddocks have turned into miniature estates with names redolent of the English ‘home counties’ and now the vegetable patches and back gardens are being built on as the value of land rises to levels never seen before.
Of course we’re not talking vulgar estates of starter homes, or even trendy cottages in places like Portobello or Stoneybatter. We’re talking big bucks to get a foundation in some of the best addresses north and south of the River Liffey.
These are places like Ballsbridge, Blackrock, Clontarf, Donnybrook, parts of Greystones and Malahide, Howth, Sutton and the ribbon of coast that runs along Dublin Bay from Malahide on the northside to Dalkey on the southside, where there is a very limited bank of building land left.
Some, like the tasteful glass and stone edifice overlooking Seapoint in Monkstown, or an impressive red-brick on Cross Avenue in Blackrock, or the modern mansions overlooking Howth Harbour appear to have come right out of the back catalogue of Grand Designs.
But these are the exceptions. The real bonus for developers is a small development of luxury properties or a discreet block of apartments for wealthy downsizers who want to stay close to the mansions where their families grew up.
There has also been a ‘change of the guard’ as a whole swathe of Irish wealth was wiped out by the great recession. It wasn’t just the high-profile developers (most of whom held on to the family estates) but bankers, investors and those at the top of the legal and medical professions who invested in the boom and bank shares saw their wealth incinerated in the process.
You won’t see their names in the court reports of families fighting repossession; they know only too well the price of failure. Most of them have gone in, done their deals with the financial institutions and moved quietly to more modest locations, protecting their reputations and their families from the voyeurism that surrounds what we love about ‘property porn’.
Now the tech-types, the aviation multi-millionaires and the highly-paid executives of multi-national food companies are colonising the well-appointed avenues which were once the preserve of the judges, solicitors, retail magnates and the ‘old money’ which has run out or is tied up in trust funds that no longer allow for extravagance.
Shrewsbury Road, regarded by many as the city’s best address, has been a building site for several years now as new blood and money moved in, modernising the old interiors and adding 21st century ‘must-haves’ such as gyms, underground car parking and servants’ quarters.
The latest planning application to renovate what is described as “a modern pastiche with six bedrooms” (once the home of Blacktie owner Niall O’Farrell) comes from Hong Kong-based aviation tycoon Domhnal Slattery and his wife Elaine.
Just up the road an ‘estate’ of “seven superior luxury dwellings” is earmarked for the former Chester Beatty Library site, named, with stunning originality The Library, and up for sale to a willing developer with an appetite for high-value clients.
The leafy lanes of Foxrock (or Dublin’s more discreet suburbs) are festooned with For Sale, Sold and ‘Development Opportunity’ signs as the ripple effect of the banking and property collapse takes its toll, with one well-heeled dog walker pointing to several signs for various estate agents lined up in a row and wondered aloud in a disdainful tone, “Are they in NAMA?”
Others are just houses that have been in families for a generation or two and are now being sold “with potential” for re-development.
It’s this ‘with potential’ that sets off most of the alarm bells. People automatically envisage trucks and vans blocking up the narrow avenues, dust and disturbance and gangs of breakfast-roll men, not to mention what the site might end up like after the developers and builders have moved on.
The hillside suburb of Mount Merrion has been militant in its opposition to new development, but developers don’t give up easy and with a big old house in large grounds now up for sale, the battleground keeps shifting.
Recently the Housing Agency purchased a large ivy-clad former bed and breakfast on the elegant St Laurence Road in Clontarf for potential use as a shelter for the homeless.
Locals are not impressed, one asking if the new occupants will be Garda vetted, another of the opinion that a lot more social housing could be built for the same outlay.
It’s a debate that will continue to rage, but if you live in some comfort in a €1m property, it can seem churlish to actively or publicly oppose housing the less fortunate.
Back in the depths of the recession one lone economist predicted that the Irish economy would come back like the bounce of a ball.
Nobody believed him at the time. But they hadn’t reckoned with the Irish obsession with property, and more importantly with owning it.
Once again this thirst for home ownership if fuelling what seems perilously close to another property bubble. Maybe we’re in love with the excitement of it, as well as the pride of owning our own place.
Even those who move away often come back, like spawning eels, to the suburbs where they grew up.
They get little thanks from the commentators for the sacrifices they make to own their own houses, chaining themselves and their families to 25-year mortgages that often leave them ‘cash poor’ through their middle years.
Although ownership as a dream is becoming increasingly more difficult to realise, it still remains the objective for many middle-class people, who wouldn’t contemplate that the State has an obligation to house them. But, increasingly, these are the people who are being pushed further out into the commuter belt as the remaining land becomes the prerogative of the very wealthy rather than the merely well-off.
The most desirable sites in areas for development close to the city, like Clontarf and Donnybrook, and even farther afield, are single houses built from the 1950s onwards on large patches of land.
Because they are not listed under the planning acts, they can be easily and quickly demolished and replaced with houses modelled to within an inch of their lives by architects and interior designers.
While RTE got all the headlines this week with the €107m sale of its campus on the Stillorgan Road to Cairn Homes for 500 apartments and 10 mansions, presumably sited on the Ailesbury Road end of the site, developers are also eyeing up that staple of the property market – ‘religious’ land.
In Blackrock, a juicy parcel is up for grabs for €25m and across the city in Killester a smaller patch for €3m plus.
Land may go up and down in value, depending on the seven-year ‘property cycle’ but as one old sage used to tell people with money to invest, “put it into land, they’re not making any more of it”.