Councillors Want to Claw Back Oversight of Parnell Square Library Project

It’s six years since US property giant Kennedy Wilson signed on to the idea of transforming the north side of the Parnell Square into a “cultural quarter” – including a new library.

At first, the plan was to fund the project through philanthropic donations. The Parnell Square Foundation, founded by Dublin City Council and Kennedy Wilson, was going to raise it.

But it didn’t. No funds have been raised through philanthropic avenues, according to a spokesperson for Kennedy Wilson.

Now the whole process of creating the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter needs to be brought back under the control of the council’s arts and culture committee, says Social Democrats Councillor Gary Gannon, who heads it.

As it stands, the Parnell Square Foundation is a private company and cannot be scrutinised in the way a public body can, he says.

The version of the project announced two years ago – which updated the deal around how it would be funded – never seemed feasible, said Gannon. “A lot of councillors raised that at the time and we were severely patronised really.”

Now the council is faced with choices as to whether to fund the library itself, separately from the rest of the wider development, and whether to pick from other funding options that Kennedy Wilson has put forward.

It’s a choice councillors want more of a say in.

Philanthropic Funding

Before Gannon, independent Councillor Vincent Jackson was head of the arts committee. He also sat on the board of the Parnell Square Foundation.

At the time, there wasn’t a big fundraising push – the line from Kennedy Wilson was that there needed to be a concrete plan to show potential donors, he says.

“We thought that the push was going to come after the planning permission,” Jackson says.

Then, as the project’s projected costs boomed from €60 million in 2016 to €100 million in 2017, the plan for Kennedy Wilson to source the total cost through philanthropic funding changed.

Dublin City Council agreed with Kennedy Wilson that the council would pay 49 percent of the then projected cost of €100 million with a loan, if Kennedy Wilson could raise the rest from private donors.

Sketch designs of library. Courtesy of Dublin City Council.

In May 2019, An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for a new city library at Coláiste Mhuire, an old Christian Brothers school on the square, a 200-seat conference room, an exhibition space, a cafe, educational facilities, and a new public plaza.

Within three months, though, the project was falling apart.

This was on the back of an assessment carried out earlier this year by Kennedy Wilson, through the Parnell Square Foundation.

“The foundation did not say that the monies could not be raised but they did carry out a very detailed assessment by a professional in this area who did say look it is going to take three plus years,” says the Kennedy Wilson spokesperson.

Why wasn’t this assessment carried out at the earlier? “Well I think it’s more about getting the actual sequencing right,” says the spokesperson – referring to the planning and design, and what he describes as the “visual infrastructure” to be sold to philanthropists.

“Once those processes are in place, you move to a more activist approach to fundraise,” says the spokesperson.

Oversight

According to a memo circulated in July 2019 to councillors by Owen Keegan, chief executive of Dublin City Council, the project’s costs have risen again.

“The current estimated cost of the permitted scheme is circa €131m (including costs to date to secure planning),” it says.

That’s more than twice the €60 million estimate for the project from back in 2015.

The Dublin City Council Press Office said it wasn’t possible to provide a breakdown of the projected costs, due to commercial sensitivity.

“Detailed cost appraisals have been produced at key stages of the project’s design development, with the most recent detailed cost plan reflecting the design at planning application stage,” says the spokesperson.

“These include construction costs, non-construction costs (e.g. surveys, design team fees, planning application costs), contingency, VAT, and projected cost inflation based on a construction start in July 2021,” says the spokesperson.

In his memo, Keegan proposes that the council “assume responsibility for the development of the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter”, and start building the library, which is projected to cost €80 million.

Gannon, of the Social Democrats, agrees that the development needs to come back under the control of the council – “in order to have full oversight of whatever money is being spent. I think that’s fundamentally what has to happen”.

“I would like to see some form of democratic accountability and budgetary oversight as the project develops,” he says.

Labour Party Councillor Rebecca Moynihan sees the project coming back under the council’s control as Dublin City Council potentially becomes the main financier of the library, a proposal that was raised by Keegan in his memo to councillors.

“Particularly now that Kennedy Wilson aren’t going to be as active as a player,” she says, given their downgraded role in the funding.

What Role?

Gannon says that he has serious reservations about the role that Kennedy Wilson plays in providing social and cultural infrastructure with the council within the city.

“An organisation such as Kennedy Wilson, I mean they’re not a charity by their very nature and the idea that they were going to altruistically fundraise for a library is preposterous,” says Gannon.

Jackson reckons they still have a role to play but perhaps not as the primary mover in the project. “I would hope that they could at least deliver something,” says Jackson.

The spokesperson for Kennedy Wilson says the real estate company remains committed to delivering the project.

They’ve put three options to the council “in terms of potential projects that fundraising could be driven for, for the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter”, they said.

“One of which relates to the visual arts, one of which relates to world of literature and another is most related to the design and innovation spaces,” they said.

The spokesperson wouldn’t give any more details on the nature of the proposals, other than that Kennedy Wilson believes it would be more realistic to deliver the funding on a philanthropic basis for these, than for the library.

Kennedy Wilson would like to be involved in and help to drive the project says the spokesperson. “It’s now up for the council to come back on those.”

According to a council’s spokesperson, the council is doing a detailed feasibility study to establish the cost of the development of a first phase, which would involve “the new-build development to the rear of 23–28 Parnell Square North” – the address of the potential new library.

The study is expected to be complete by mid-September, they said. They didn’t mention Kennedy Wilson’s new proposals.

“Hopefully we will get some philanthropic donations in but I don’t think it’s at the level we had envisioned,” says Moynihan, of Labour.

“It’s one of those things that the social benefits and the long-term benefits far outweigh the costs of doing these things, you know,” she said.

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Sean Finnan: is a reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers the north side of the city. You can reach him at sfinnan@dublininquirer.com.

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