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The trouble with names

In the early 1800s, Russell, a small beachside village in the very northern part of New Zealand, was described by English missionaries as the "Hellhole of the Pacific". Back then it was a debauched place, full of fighting and venereal disease, "a vile hole, full of impudent, half-drunken people" as one British surveyor kindly put it.

Today Russell is a chi-chi village of upmarket restaurants, boutique stores, gourmet ice cream parlours and, thanks to its stunning location overlooking the subtropical Bay of Islands, home to some of the most expensive real estate in New Zealand.

The locals might complain that the influx of money has changed Russell for the worse, but I guess the point is places, just like people, can change. This is something the marketers of "Herberton", otherwise known as Fatima Mansions, might want to keep in mind when they present 396 private apartments to the market.

In yesterday's Sunday Tribune it was reported that residents of the redeveloped Fatima Mansions housing estate were upset at the arrival of "Herberton" as a marketing name for Phase II of the site's development:

"We'd prefer if the name didn't change," says Gemma McKenna, a nun, a community worker and a Fatima Mansions resident for more than 20 years. "It has no meaning for us at all."

Fatima Mansions is the first urban regeneration project of its kind in Ireland to be financed through the mechanism of a Public Private Partnership (PPP). This agreement between Dublin City Council and property developer Maplewood Elliot JV Ltd allows for the development of 396 private apartments, and several commercial and retail units in return for the provision of 220 high quality social and affordable housing units, a neighbourhood centre, outdoor all-weather sports pitch and leisure facilities (to include a 20m pool, gym and aerobic studio). Phase I of this redevelopment saw the construction of 110 social units which are already occupied by Fatima Mansions former residents.

The Fatima Mansions site, located between St James's Walk and Rueben St, once held an estate of 363 flats. Built in 1949, the mansions became rundown during the 70s and 80s, and the name was henceforth associated with the blights of estate living - crime, drugs, vandalism, and poverty. In 2001, with nearly 70 of the flats unoccupied, the Fatima urban regeneration plan called for a complete destruction of the estate. This plan puts equal emphasis on both physical and social regeneration of the mansions, as the former is likely to have little effect without the latter. Youth activities, homework clubs, arts opportunities and new recreational facilities are part of an eight-objective plan to change the lives of those that call Fatima home.

The associations conjured by the name Fatima Mansions provides a tricky situation for the marketers of the private apartments, and illustrates just one of the possible tensions that can arise from a public-private partnership. It is likely that social changes in Fatima Mansions are going to take much longer than is required for a quick off-the-plans sale. However it is also possible that the name Fatima Mansions might one day become a key word for what is possible in urban regeneration, and for the humanity of a city doesn't give up on a disadvantaged sector of society.

The other key point to make is that the deception will only last so long. One would hope most potential buyers would at least make a site visit before signing on the bottom line. Dependent on the integrity of the marketing plan and developer, it would also seem necessary to mention the background behind the formation of the development in the advertising brochure for the apartments.

Penhire's close involvement in the property sector leads me to believe the apartments will sell regardless of name, because of their excellent position next to the Fatima Luas station and proximity to the city centre.

Last October, Penhire published a report "What's in a name? A guide to naming new developments" (downloadable from our website) that specifically outlined the legislation surrounding the approval of new names, and the pitfalls of using a marketing name. Although not unlawful, the use of an unapproved marketing name is discouraged for exactly the reason shown by the Fatima Mansions case, in that these can upset local residents and create unnecessary bad publicity for the council and developer. To achieve planning permission, some local authorities even require names to be approved before construction begins. This means once the first brick is laid these "marketing" signs must be removed or the developer will, in essence, fail to meet a condition of planning permission.

It seems needless to point out that a name is much more than a group of letters. It is a history, a memory, a community and importantly, part of a person's individual identity.

Though it may seem unbelievable to a certain brand of wide boy marketer, the people of Fatima Mansions are not ashamed to live there. For better or worse, it is their home and they are sticking with it. When the Fatima regeneration plan was officially launched in 2004, an RTE interviewer headed down to the mansions to get a local take on what the plan was offering:
RTE interviewer - "Do you think it'll be a better place to live?"
Fatima teenager - "It's always a good place to live."

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