People Before Profit Councillor Andrew Keegan says Dubliners have lost an iconic piece of their city. “Wake up and smell the coffee,” he says. “They are selling off your public space.”
He wants to alert Dubliners to the fact that Dame Street Plaza has recently been sold to private developers Hines and Peterson Group, as part of the sale of the Central Bank building.
Dame Street Plaza is one of Dublin’s best-known meeting places, a popular hang-out for teenagers, and the focus point of many protests.
In November, the full council unanimously backed a motion from Keegan calling for the council to do everything it could to try to ensure that the space remains open to the public.
The new owners say they intend to allow the public to use the plaza, but Keegan says he doesn’t think that will last. Even if it does, privatisation of public space is still a big problem, he says.
Is It Privatisation?
There are spaces that are privately owned, but accessible to the public. And there are spaces that are publicly owned, but not open to members of the public.
So it can be unclear what people mean when they say something is a “public space”. (That it’s owned by the public? That it’s accessible to the public? Both?)
But there’s an argument to be made that Dame Street Plaza wasn’t a public space before, so its sale to Hines and Peterson Group can’t be called privatisation.
Yes, it was accessible to the public, and used at will by all kinds of Dubliners and visitors, according to this line of argument. But in terms of ownership, it was semi-public at most.
The plaza has been owned by the Central Bank since the 1970s, which means that, strictly speaking, it wasn’t a public space, according to Paddy McDonnell, a spokesperson for the Bank.
The Central Bank is a bit of a “unique entity”, says economist Brian Lucey, who used to work for there, and is now a professor of finance at the School of Business at Trinity College Dublin.
It prints money and sells it on to banks at a profit. But it generates most of its profits through providing banking services, said Lucey.
“It acts like an ordinary bank except for banks,” he says. The Central Bank holds bonds that it sells on at profit, and it also lends money to banks, on which it charges interest.
It is independent of government, Lucey says. “In some ways, it’s akin to a semi-state,” he says
The Central Bank is moving to a new building on North Wall Quay, which was once earmarked for Anglo Irish Bank. The building was bought for €7 million in 2012, and the refit has come to an estimated €140 million, according to McDonnell.
The move is necessary because the Bank has more work to do these days. Its staff has grown, and is currently spread across four different locations, said McDonnell.
Its finances are independent of the government, and it can afford the move, McDonnell said. In 2015, it reported a financial profit of €2.2 billion (€1.7 billion of which it transferred to the exchequer), he said.
As Lucey tells it, the Central Bank’s move to North Wall is perhaps comparable to “if Bord na Mona were to make money and move to a new HQ”.
The decision to sell up and move was made by former Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan in 2012, but the Minister for Finance would have been informed, said McDonnell.
A Popular Spot
Teenagers on the plaza Sunday said they knew the space had been sold, and that they are worried about it.
“At the moment you can’t be moved off, unless you are doing something wrong, like under-age drinking, and that is ’cause it’s public space,” says Dia McEvoy, a tall guy.
(Yes, it wasn’t really publicly owned, strictly speaking. But McEvoy thought of it as public space.)
Even if the plaza remains open to the public, now that it’s privately owned, McEvoy said, the owners might be able to move you on just because they don’t like the look of you. “So, I would be worried about the changes.”
McEvoy’s friend, Megan Oz, who has a pink fringe, says that many of the young people who hang around the Central Bank aren’t happy with what they see as the privatisation of the plaza.
“It’s a great meeting point for all different groups of people – skinheads, goths, punks, everyone comes here,” she says. “We have so many memories here.”
They serenaded tourists with rock versions of Christmas carols in 2015. “There are some people who hang out here so much they are called ‘bankies’,” says Oz.
Jamelyn McHugh joins in the conversation. “There will be riots if this gets fenced off,” he says.
McHugh says that generations of teens have used the plaza, and he thinks it should have been retained in what he saw as public ownership when the buildings were sold.
What Does the Future Hold?
Robert Hanley, a spokesperson for Hines, one of the parties that has bought the building, says there hasn’t been a decision yet on how to develop it.
But “it is the intention of the new owners to keep and maintain the space to the front of the building as open public space”, he said.
That’s something Labour Councillor Andrew Montague says he wants assured.
The sale of the premises is a cause for concern, as the plaza is an important public space, said Montague, who is the chair of the council’s Planning Strategic Policy Committee, But as long as it remains open to the public, he doesn’t see a problem with it being privately owned.
Others have similar feelings. Fine Gael Councillor Paddy McCartan says he supports the move by the Central Bank and thinks the plaza will remain open. “I’d expect it would be retained as a public space,” he says.
Keegan, though, says he suspects it is only a matter of time until the new owners will look to develop Dame Street Plaza.
Even if they don’t fence it off or build on it, Keegan objects to what he calls the “creeping privatisation” of public space and points to the experience of London.
“If people really knew to what extent what they perceive to be public space is actually private, they would be shocked. Especially along the Thames embankment in London,” he says.
Right to Protest
Keegan worries that the privatisation of the space could mean that people won’t be allowed to protest there anymore.
“Government will not take the side of the citizen over the property owner, that is for sure,” he said. “The fact that a popular protest spot in the city could now be built on would be a bonus to government.”
(There is a plan to open up a new public space right nearby: the proposed redesigned of College Green would include a large plaza. But there has been opposition to that plan, and there have been delays.)
Some Londoners have been complaining for some time, about the mass privatisation of public space there. According to geographer Bradley L Garrett, protest aren’t allowed outside the mayor’s office, because that space is private property, for example.
And there’s a fear that something similar could happen to Dame Street Plaza in Dublin.
In February last year, thousands attended water-charges protests that started from the plaza. It was also home to the Occupy movement in 2011.
On Friday, a conglomeration of groups including, among others, the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, abortion rights campaigners and Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit, gathered at the plaza to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump.
Protester Philip Kenny said he was firmly opposed to what he saw as the privatisation of the plaza.
“The government obviously doesn’t care about public space. We have no town square in the whole of Dublin, and now they have sold off the one plaza we have,” said Kenny.
“Dublin has already become too expensive for ordinary people to live in and now even the ground you a stand on is being commodified,” he says.
His friend, Dan Madigan, says the plaza should not have been included in the sale of the Central Bank building to Hines and Peterson Group.
But the bank is moving, and the plaza has been sold. So what will happen to the giant golden ball?
The sculpture, Crann an Oir or Tree of Gold, will remain in its place in the plaza, McDonnell says. “The decision was arrived at after careful discussion with the wider arts and architectural community,” he says.