Photos by Conal Thomas

The city library on Parnell Square North will be the centrepiece of the proposed Parnell Square Cultural Quarter. That is, of course, if it gets built.

Dublin City Council has changed tack since the sketch designs were unveiled last year, leaving some to question the financial viability of its grand plan.  

In The Beginning

Back in September 2016, City Librarian Margaret Hayes told city councillors that the project was due to cost up to €60 million, to be paid for by philanthropic donations.

Real estate firm Kennedy Wilson donated €2.5 million to start the project off and agreed to lead the fundraising drive for the remainder.

Over five floors of new and existing buildings, the planned city library would occupy the terrace on Parnell Square North that stretches from No. 27 up to the Hugh Lane Gallery and the Dublin Writers Museum.

Housing 150,000 items, 1,000 seats for readers, a children’s library on the lower ground floor, archives, and a 6,000-square-foot “music hub”, the library is set to dominate the city’s second cultural quarter.

But in October librarian Hayes told councillors of the Central Area that the cost of the project had jumped to €100 million. Since then, the council has been gradually changing its tune about where the money is coming from.

A Different Approach

Dublin City Council has come to an agreement whereby Kennedy Wilson needs to raise a minimum of 51 percent, which is €51 million, of the required funding through their philanthropic drive, according to a council spokesperson.

The council now plans to take a loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) to raise the €49 million needed to complete the project, said the spokesperson.

Kennedy Wilson will continue to fundraise beyond the €51 million in an effort to finance the loan charges.

To date €4.8 million has been raised for the project, with the planning application due to be lodged in 2018, said the spokesperson.

They added that until that is approved – and the €51 million has been raised – will the council apply for a loan from the EIB, up to €49 million.

Is It Risky?

According to the council spokesperson, this model of financing “is structured to mitigate any risk”, but some councillors are still concerned that Dublin City Council might be left to foot a big bill.

“It’s reckless,” says independent Councillor Mannix Flynn, who sits on the council’s arts committee. “I don’t think they’ve thought this process out.”

Flynn deems the overall project “unnecessary”, and says that the philanthropic approach adopted by the council “is completely and absolutely off the Richter scale”.

There is a risk to the council, says independent Councillor Vincent Jackson, who sits on both the arts committee and the board of the Parnell Square Foundation, a company with directors from Dublin City Council and Kennedy Wilson, registered as a charity, which is set up to fundraise and finance the library.

As he sees it, though, the new library is about regenerating the Parnell Square area. “It’s of a scale that’ll bring international recognition to the city,” he says. “But I’m not going to pretend there isn’t a risk.”

Jackson says that representatives of Kennedy Wilson are confident that they can push the philanthropic drive up to €100 million.

Said a council spokesperson: “No works will commence until a minimum of 51 percent of the required funding has been raised in philanthropy.”

Where Are We At?

City Librarian Margaret Hayes said last week at a meeting of the council’s arts committee that she is confident the new library “will be very well used and worth every cent or penny or euro that we invest in it”.

The construction project is to be developed by PSQ Developments Limited, a private limited company that is “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Parnell Square Foundation”, according to the council spokesperson. Its directors also include representatives from the council and Kennedy Wilson.

Site works have finished, and those behind the project plan to lodge an application for planning permission next year, she told councillors on the arts committee.

Some councillors argued that they still aren’t getting enough information as things move ahead, though.

People Before Profit’s John Lyons asked that the minutes of the meetings held between Kennedy Wilson and council officials be circulated to councillors.

It’s so they can get a clearer picture of how the library’s financing is coming along, he said. “It’s still at a stage where we’re very unsure as to how the 51 percent of the finances is going to be raised.”

That can’t happen, said Jackson. The Parnell Square Foundation is a limited company, so the details of meetings can’t be shared beyond the boardroom, he said.

Instead, Jackson told councillors he would update them on the project’s progress. Jackson’s first board meeting is due to take place in January.

Other councillors have raised concerns, too, about the council working so closely with a real-estate firm with interests throughout the city.

Kennedy Wilson counts among its assets the Shelbourne Hotel and Clancy Quay in Dublin 8, and it might need planning permission in the future. “It’s a major conflict of interest,” says Flynn.

Jackson said that, with the greater transparency in the planning process these days, it was unlikely that firm would curry favour. “We just have to be very mindful that nobody gets preferential treatment,” he said.

Said Lyons: “It is a rather uncomfortable situation. One would hope that the planning authority, that is the city council, will judge each and every application on its merits, but who knows?”

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *