The Irish Times - Saturday, January 19, 2008

Vocation for regeneration

Profile John Fitzgerald : Cleaning up the heart of Dublin made his reputation, but saving the heart of Limerick might prove to be more difficult, writes Carl O'Brien, Social Affairs Correspondent.

As he made his way past the skeletal remains of burnt-out homes and the carcasses of dead cars, John Fitzgerald professed to feeling a growing sense of shock. As city manager of Dublin for the past decade, he had seen some of the worst urban neglect: grim monuments such as Fatima Mansions, St Teresa's Gardens and O'Devaney Gardens. But this no-man's-land, just a short distance from Limerick city centre, was

"I knew the problems were serious, but it was probably worse than anything I had seen," he says. "People were living a short distance from the city centre, but it was extraordinary how fearful and threatened they felt. It's tortured a lot of people. Most had paid their taxes, done their duty to society and had retired to a place
that was in deep trouble."

On Monday, a master plan to transform the sprawling local authority housing estates of Moyross, Southill and other parts of the city will be officially unveiled. Fitzgerald, who was appointed by the Government to oversee the regeneration of these areas, has played a central role in progressing the plans to this point.

It's an ambitious blueprint. It involves demolishing up to 2,500 houses, creating two new town centres, co-ordinating responses to social and education problems and, ultimately, breaking the cycle of disadvantage which has gripped these neighbourhoods.

Two Government-established agencies involving officials from government departments, local authorities and state agencies will be responsible for implementing the plan. Construction is due to begin next year and the first major phase of the project could be completed within three years.

In the notoriously bureaucratic world of public planning and development - where building a ring road around the capital takes almost 20 years to complete - the plans have been put together at lightning speed. But few who know Fitzgerald are surprised at this frenetic pace.

"When I saw that he was appointed to the Limerick regeneration, I thought one thing: If he has to man a bulldozer himself, Fitzy will get this through," says one councillor, who has observed him in action over the past decade in Dublin.

"He's effective and gets things done, but the key is he works well with people," says another. "He's a problem solver: if something isn't working, it's fixed immediately. He's got a ferocious work ethic."

Few in Dublin may realise it, but this unelected 61-year-old official from a farm near the foothills of the Galtee Mountains is largely responsible for the modern face of the capital. While Dublin city manager, he helped breathe new life into a metropolis which sparkles with rejuvenated neighbourhoods, landmark buildings and a main street which finally befits a European capital city. Grim inner-city housing estates such as Fatima Mansions are being transformed, while monuments such as the Spire in O'Connell Street are testament to a city with a newfound confidence and swagger.

It may be hard to imagine now, but a decade ago the city still bore the scars of decades of dereliction and poor planning. The population of the inner city was in freefall as people decamped to the suburbs, while local authority ghettos slid slowly into oblivion.

Some warned that it was only a matter of time before it morphed into a US-style "doughnut" city, with an empty city centre surrounded by densely populated neighborhoods The lack of confidence in the dysfunctional "corpo" was such that even government funds for regeneration projects such as Temple Bar or the Docklands were being directed away from the local authority and into newly established State agencies.

Fitzgerald's capacity to get things done had less to do with a table-thumping management style and more to do with team-building. By surrounding himself with problem-solvers and establishing more coherent management structures, many in development circles say, Fitzgerald helped to restore a coherent sense of purpose to Dublin City Council.

"He created a very effective and unified management team with a can-do approach that including senior professionals and administrative staff. Everyone knew the game plan," says one senior local authority official.

"He was ambitious for the city," says another. "He looked at other European capitals and examples of good planning and said, 'We should be competing with them.' That ambition wasn't there before."

NOT EVERYONE IS ready to heap praise on him, though. Some local campaigners grumble that the drive to create socially-mixed neighbourhoods in working class areas has left a legacy of gated apartment complexes, isolated from the local community. Others complain that developers were allowed to throw up substandard apartment complexes for far too long, some of which are already beginning to show signs of ageing.

Fitzgerald was also extremely fortunate. By heading up the local authority during the heady years of the decade-long economic boom, resources that were previously undreamt of were at his disposal.

Suddenly, what once seemed impossible was possible. However, almost everyone agrees, even his few critics, that life in the city has vasty improved.

For someone so powerful, Fitzgerald is remarkably anonymous. As city manager, he presided over a local authority with a budget of €2 billion and a workforce of 6,000 people. Yet there is little gravitas surrounding the man. At functions he tends to fade into the background and purposely shuns the spotlight.

He stands in sharp contrast to his gregarious predecessor, Frank Feely - city manager for 17 years - whose appetite for public functions was legendary. (When US president Bill Clinton came to visit Dublin in the early 1990s, Feely took the stage in the full splendour of specially commissioned ceremonial robes, while the lord mayor was forced to wait behind a crowd-control barrier.)

In person, Fitzgerald seems quiet and unassuming, although those who know him well say he is good-humored and has a tremendous facility for putting people at ease.

"He's a good listener," says one council official. "He's not full of bluster. When he speaks, it's precise and to the point."

There is also a steeliness to him, however. Staff who didn't perform in the council were quickly sidelined. And when a decision was made, he stuck to it resolutely, often in the face of public anger. "We fought him on the high-rise issue and thought we'd stop it," says one local campaigner. "But he never mellowed on it. Generally, when he said something would happen, it happened."

FITZGERALD GREW UP in a small farm outside the village of Galbally, Co Limerick. His father died when he was just five years of age, leaving his mother with five children ranging in age from one to eight.

Despite the occasional hardship, he says it was as close to an ideal childhood as you could have. While most young men went on to work in their early to mid-teens, Fitzgerald went to the CBS in Tipperary town to finish his Leaving Cert. From there, he got a job in the Revenue Commissioners, working by night to complete an accountancy course at
the College of Commerce in Rathmines.

After qualifying, he worked in the builders' providers Chadwicks as an accountant, before moving to Cork Corporation, where he had his first taste of local government. The city manager, Joe McHugh, had a major influence on Fitzgerald, who initiated a mould-breaking development plan for the city, which helped Cork avoid most of the planning mistakes made in Dublin.

From there he moved to Dublin Corporation as the city treasurer, where he was nicknamed "Johnny Cash", in order to distinguish him from his namesake in the waste section, who was known as "Johnny Trash".

He quickly rose to assistant city manager and eventually became manager of South Dublin County Council in the mid-1990s, before moving on to Dublin city manager.

A number of planning decisions made in the mid-1990s are being examined by the Mahon Tribunal. The tribunal heard a claim last year that he promised developer Owen O'Callaghan that a cap on the size of Quarryvale shopping centre would be lifted when he became manager of South Dublin County Council. Fitzgerald told the tribunal this week that he rejected the claims and was "annoyed and concerned" when the suggestion was made at the tribunal last year.

These days Fitzgerald, a widower with four grown-up daughters, divides his time between Limerick and Dublin, where he is also chairing a regeneration agency which will develop the Grangegorman site close to the city centre.

Looking back on his days as city manager, he says he is most proud of the achievements that rarely made the headlines: improving the delivery of services to people who needed them; establishing local branches of the council around the city; improving conditions in deprived areas.

Over the past year and a half, during consultations with the communities of Moyross and Southill, he has mentioned these acheivements as something that can be replicated in Limerick.

"I told them that whatever problems I've seen in their community, I've seen them before. And we've been able to resolve them. The easy thing is putting in the housing, making policing more visible. The big test will be the social re-integration: getting services in place and getting everyone to work together. It will happen - it's just a matter of doing it right."


Who is he?
Former Dublin city manager responsible for re-building and regenerating the city between 1996 and 2006.

Why is he in the news?
He is behind the blueprint for the regeneration of deprived areas of Limerick city.

Most appealing characteristics:
Good-humoured, unassuming and modest.

Least appealing characteristics:
Dogged and unflinching

Most likely to say:
"With the right social mix, proper infrastrucutre and good quality services, we can make Moyross one of the most desirable places to live in the city."

Least likely to say:
"I give up - Moyross is doomed. Let's just pack it in and call it a day."