The Quiet Collapse of the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter

By Councillor John Lyons, Independent Left

Painted illustration of the north side of Parnell Square, Hugh Lane at the centre with imagined colourful stalls along a pedestrianised street.
The plan for beautiful new cultural quarter for Parnell Square is faltering due to the failure of the private-wealth approach

A beautiful new library, part of an ambitious new cultural quarter encompassing places for learning, literature, music, innovation and enterprise, inter-culturalism and design, to be located at Parnell Square Dublin 1, was in store for Dublin and Dubliners. The Central Library in the Ilac Shopping Centre has its charm but this new library was to be something else, a civic space fitting for a twenty-first century capital city, especially one designated UNESCO City of Literature.

The Parnell Square Cultural Quarter, a 11,000 m2 development comprising a new city library and a range of social and cultural facilities –  a music centre, a design space, an innovation hub, a business library, a 200 seat conference space, an education centre, a café and an exhibition area – was to be Dublin City Council’s major flagship development, regenerating the north inner city as well as providing a new focus and destination at the northern end of O’Connell Street.

The  proposed  development was to include  work  to  the  existing  Georgian  houses  at  23  to  28 Parnell  Square  North  as  well  as  a  dramatic  new  building  to  the  rear  of  these  houses.  It included  20 and 21 Parnell Square  North and would have seen the creation of a new public plaza along Parnell Square North. It was intended that Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane would form part of the overall  Parnell Square Cultural Quarter offering and its role and impact would be expanded by the development of the new facilities. Magnificent!

I have supported this wonderful civic vision for Parnell Square over the last five years but with one recurring reservation: the funding model deployed to transform the vision into a reality was predicated upon 55% of the entire cost of the project coming through philanthropic channels. Yes, the rich Irish elite were going to be approached to cough up some of the money they save through our rather elite-friendly taxation system.

Alas, it was not to be. Unlike the Scottish-American millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who provided £170,000 between 1897 and 1913 to fund an entire network of libraries in Ireland (some 80 in total, 63 of which are still standing today), the millionaires and billionaires in twenty-first century Ireland appear disinterested in the kind of philanthropic activity Carnegie was involved in over one hundred years ago.

Parnell Square Cultural Quarter too Dependent on Private Capital

“Destined to fail,” some said; “bizarre”, said others; “doomed”, declared many. “Why the hell can’t we just fund it ourselves?” asked many more.

The cost of the project was estimated (in August 2019) to be in the region of €131 million. According to Dublin City Council’s executive Owen Keegan, a “unique feature of this project  is that Kennedy Wilson Europe Limited agreed,  on a pro bono basis, to assist the delivery of the project by providing seed capital to get the project through design, costing and final planning, leading the effort  to  raise the required  level  of private donations to  fully  fund  the  project and providing expertise to assist in the management of the project.”

This strange funding structure would have seen 55% of that funding raised via philanthropic donation(s) secured through the efforts of one of the largest private property landlords in the city. The rich folk of the city, and perhaps the country, were going to don the blue jersey and stump up the millions, with Dublin City Council agreeing to finance the other 45%.

Agreeing to allow US property speculator Kennedy Wilson take responsibility for fundraising over 50% of the cost of the new Dublin City Library at Parnell Square appeared like a particularly unusual way for Dublin City Council to go about raising the capital funds required for one of the capital city’s cultural flagship developments.

During my five years to date as an elected representative on Dublin City Council, however, I have become used to proposals which involve a heavy dose of the private sector: from housing construction, waste collection, water and sanitation to grass-cutting, housing maintenance, the involvement of private contractors is ubiquitous. The city council’s capacity to deliver these services has shrivelled through years of austerity and privatisation.

When asked by myself and other elected representatives why we couldn’t fund the project fully ourselves, whilst pointing to the obvious dangers of relying on private donations to raise over half the cost of the development, we were assured by city council officials that this was the best way to go about it.

So the Parnell Square Foundation, comprised of City Council officials and Kennedy Wilson representatives was established in 2013 to oversee the project. And according to city council report from July 2019, “considerable  progress has been made  over the past seven years… In particular,  all  the required buildings  have  been  brought  into  City  Council  ownership,  substantial  support  for  the  City Council’s vision  for Parnell Square  North  has been generated,  a world class design  has  been procured and full planning permission for the proposed development has been obtained from An Bord Pleanála.”

But here comes the “however”: Dublin City Council manager Keegan goes on to state in the same report that, “I have now been  advised, following work undertaken by a consultant engaged  by  Kennedy Wilson on behalf of the Foundation, that the required private fundraising could take over 3 years and that there is no guarantee it will be successful.” (My italics). The consultant’s interim report identified a number of potential obstacles to a successful fundraising campaign for the project including the following:

– the scale of funding required for the project relative to the sums raised previously for cultural projects in Ireland from national and international donors,

–  the fact that the Foundation has no previous donor base to act as project champions,

–  the intense competition for  philanthropic funding from high profile national cultural projects based in Dublin, which have already secured significant State funding and

– the fact that libraries have a lower affinity score with private donors than the arts generally. 

The rich ain’t interested, national government is nowhere to be seen or heard, and so the city council is left to pick up the pieces. Predictable but nonetheless devastating for the city of Dublin.

What Happens Now for the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter?

So where to now? Keegan proposes to proceed with the new library but to delay the redevelopment of the five Georgian buildings which were to house the new Cultural Quarter Education Centre, the Music Centre, the Design Space, the InterCultural Hub and the public realm works, thus effectively abandoning the wonderful civic vision for Parnell Square in favour of a piecemeal development.

Just. Not. Good. Enough.

So I have tabled the following motion to Dublin City Council in the hope that the entire Parnell Square Cultural Quarter vision can be saved and developed as one project, as initially conceived:

The elected members of this city council call on national government to include in this year’s Dublin City Council Capital Programme the necessary central exchequer funding to ensure that the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter, Dublin City Council’s major flagship civic development, proceeds in its entirety as envisioned in the planning permission granted by An Bord Pleanala in May of this year, namely the entire 11,000m2 development comprising a new city library, a range of cultural, education, musical and exhibition spaces and the enhancement of the public realm.

For More Information on the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter, see here.