Dublin City Council planners have told the Office of Public Works (OPW) that it can’t have an extension for its planning permission for a giant children’s science museum at the back of the National Concert Hall in the city centre.
Between 17 August, when the OPW applied for the permission, and 11 October when the council made its decision, planning law changed.
In September, Fianna Fáil Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien signed a change in the law, which, among other changes, removed the possibility for planning permissions to be extended for developments where work hasn’t started, or substantial works haven’t been done.
“This provision is to encourage the commencement of development such as housing development,” said a circular at the time. The OPW’s application fell foul of that update, says a council planner’s report issued with the decision.
Dublin city councillors say there should be more spaces in the city dedicated to science and learning, and wonder whether the OPW would appeal the decision. The OPW didn’t respond to a query about that.
“The National Children’s Science Centre is currently the subject of Arbitration Proceedings and OPW is therefore not currently at liberty to comment,” said a spokesperson on Monday.
The arbitration proceedings are with its promoters, the Irish Children’s Museum, according to Dáil minutes.
The OPW had been granted planning permission for a new science centre in September 2016.
In May 2020, Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan who was then minister for culture said that her department had to date spent €662,500 on the project.
Plans show a four-storey building, topped with a titanium dome towering over the treetops of the secluded Iveagh Gardens, the tucked-away Victorian park between Harcourt Street and Earlsfort Terrace.
The dome was to be home to a planetarium, the plans said, with projections of the stars and planets of the known universe. The centre was to house interactive learning displays, laboratories, and lecture halls.
Designs show that the building would have connected to the back of the National Concert Hall, through an underground tunnel. Buildings at the back of the hall, the real tennis courts and former UCD School of Engineering, would have been refurbished, say planning documents.
To make room for the centre, the plans included demolishing an old workshop, maintenance shed, and part of the boundary wall along the Iveagh Gardens, “allowing for a new access ramp and steps into the Iveagh Gardens”.
They weren’t universally welcomed. In 2017, some regulars at the Iveagh Gardens protested against the proposed demolition of a protected wall and how the park, used by dog walkers, would lose its sense of seclusion.
In its planning application, the OPW pitched the design of the development as one that will reinvigorate Iveagh Gardens and reconnect it with the National Concert Hall complex.
The vision included a new colonnaded space, where diners and exhibition visitors could sit on the terrace, which would make it an enjoyable public space, it said.
Why No Work?
The OPW hasn’t yet responded to queries as to why they had to apply for an extension and why they hadn’t yet started work on the project on the ground.
The council planner’s report, however, relays what the council had been told about why the project has been slow-moving so far.
“There were commercial and economic considerations beyond their control which substantially militated against the commencement of the development,” says the planner’s report, published on 13 October.
The OPW had needed more time to assess the scope of works for the tender documents for the science centre, it said. This was more complicated because the building has protected status.
The Covid-19 pandemic got in the way of them doing that, it says.
“The timeline associated with the progression of the project is also closely linked to the availability of the appropriate funds within the OPW budget,” it says.
Tina MacVeigh, a People Before Profit councillor, says there should be more learning centres in the city.
“It’s what we need more of, more culture and more centres of learning,” she says. “It sounds like a lovely enhancement to an already existing green space.”
Claire Byrne, a Green Party councillor, says the recent announcement of closure of the Trinity College Dublin Science Gallery means that the city is missing a place of interactive scientific exploration. (What will happen with the science gallery is still an evolving story.)
The Iveagh Gardens is a good location too, near the Museum of Literature Ireland and the National Concert Hall, she says.
“It would have been quite a nice cultural quarter there, which is very much needed, I think, in that part of the city, because it’s quite dominated by offices,” she says.
At the same time, it would have had an impact on Iveagh Gardens, which is something of a haven, she said. “It’s so quiet and it’s so green and it’s so lovely. People have a very strong connection to it. That probably would have destroyed that for many people.”