Irish developer says up is the only way out of Dublin’s housing shortage

For years, Johnny Ronan’s skyscraper plans for Dublin have been grounded by regulators. The Irish property tycoon has now lowered his gaze with a port project but insists the only way out of the city’s housing crisis is to build upwards.

The 69-year-old businessman, whose flamboyant lifestyle epitomised Ireland’s Celtic Tiger excesses as much as his buildings shaped the capital’s skyline, last month sealed a multimillion euro deal to press ahead with a new deepwater port at Bremore, north of Dublin.

The project comes after criticism in a letter to Dublin Port from Green party leader and governing coalition partner Eamon Ryan over the sustainability of the existing facility at the mouth of the Liffey, which is due to run out of capacity by 2040 despite a €400mn third phase of upgrades in a total €1.9bn revamp plan.

Some businesses have even called for Dublin Port to be relocated away from the shores of the city, freeing up some 260 hectares of land as Ireland battles with a crippling housing crisis. Ryan agreed that part of the area could be used for housing, but the port has long rejected any move as unnecessary and building homes on the land as unfeasible.

Ronan — who came to symbolise Ireland’s property-driven boom-to-bust cycle after his firm, Treasury Holdings, crashed into insolvency in 2012 and spent three years in state administration — is careful to skirt that question.

“That’s a decision for the government,” he told the Financial Times, in a rare interview. “We’re not trying to get our hands on the land.”

His business, Ronan Group Real Estate, is involved with France’s EDF and Fred Olsen Seawind in the Codling Park offshore wind farm that has successfully bid to supply 1,300MW to the national power grid. Ronan believes Bremore can become a production hub for “green” hydrogen — produced using offshore wind power — as Ireland aims to source 80 per cent or its power from renewables by 2030.

Nevertheless, he says repurposing the Dublin Port site would be “transformational”. Ireland’s central bank has warned the lack of housing is a drag on the economy but developers such as Ronan are criticised for building rental properties that many people find too expensive.

One solution, he maintains, is higher-rise, higher-density development, a subject that has put him on a collision course with planning authorities. Days before he talked to the FT from his home in the mountains south of the capital, he lost a planning appeal to build a 10-storey apartment block in central Dublin.

“If they keep going on like that, the housing crisis will never be resolved,” said Ronan. His distinctive shoulder-length hair with its white badger stripe is now grey but his language is still full of colourful expletives.

With Treasury, which he co-owned with Richard Barrett, Ronan was behind some of Dublin’s showiest buildings, including the Convention Centre designed by award-winning architect Kevin Roche, which stands like a tilted can on the banks of the Liffey, and Google’s European headquarters.

The son of a pig farmer from Tipperary and now a tax resident in Malta, Ronan counts among his regrets his failure to clinch the freehold of the Empire State Building. He has a personality to match the towers he wants to build: at the height of Ireland’s financial crisis, he flew to Morocco in his private jet with former Miss World Rosanna Davison “for the craic [fun]”.

His business once stretched to China and he owned London’s Battersea Power Station until Ireland called in loans, prompting Treasury’s collapse.

Since exiting the government’s National Asset Management Agency, his business has bounced back. He has built Dublin headquarters for Amazon and Salesforce, is finishing a campus for Meta and has begun work on a new HQ for Citi.

He owns Ronan Group Real Estate with his three children and has a pipeline of projects in planning or pre-planning that add up to 2.5mn square feet of offices and 5,900 residential units with a total gross development value of some €5.2bn. The company declined to give financial details but said it had investment assets of 11 prime buildings, mostly offices, around Dublin worth about €250mn.

Ronan argues that high rise has had a bad rap; rather than US-style skyscrapers in Dublin’s elegant Georgian heart, he envisages “higher density with some taller buildings” away from the centre. “With reasonable density, you can still deliver a huge amount of housing,” he said.

But planners in 2021 rejected his bid to build two 40-storey towers in the city’s docklands and Ronan is still smarting that authorities rejected his plan for two more storeys on the 11-floor Salesforce tower, which opened last month.

Ireland’s complex planning process is being reformed but Ronan is typically blunt about the consequences of the current “broken” system: “Salesforce said if you can put another two storeys on we can bring another 1,000 jobs,” he said. Salesforce declined to comment.

He noted the irony that Irish fertiliser baron Sir Basil Goulding and his wife Valerie built a distinctive modernist summer house in 1972 in the rolling gardens of what is now Ronan’s home, without planning permission.

Near the upscale Spencer Place apartment development, where he has drawn criticism for the €2,600-€2,700 rents, Ronan said there was land that could not be developed because it was earmarked for a long-delayed Dublin Metrolink that he did not see happening for a couple of decades at least. “For f**k’s sake, we’ll all be dead [by then],” he fumed. Metrolink hopes it will be operation in the early 2030s, dependent on usually lengthy planning and procurement processes.

He remains an advocate of office working, even though the Central Bank last week warned that take-up of office space fell in the first quarter.

On the Citi building, “we are talking to four serious big occupiers,” for the 250,000 square feet still up for grabs there, including a “major American outfit that has some presence [in Ireland],” Ronan said. RGRE had also bought Citi’s old premises and was in talks to redevelop them, he added.

The company is also building a mixed development on the site of an old glass bottle factory with US asset manager Oaktree and private equity firm Blackstone.

Despite a bust-up with former partner DigitalBridge (previously called Colony Capital), he is pragmatic about having to rely on “the expensive money” from private equity firms to fund his plans.

“You need the capital, simple as that,” he winced. “The Irish banks, they’re great, but they don’t lend on land any more . . . [they’re] very prudent. Maybe too prudent.”

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