Tivoli Square is quiet on a sweltering, overcast Thursday afternoon.

It is 7 July. A man relaxes on a bench by a long rusted steel planter. The new 242-apartment Staycity aparthotel is open for business.

On the ground-floor of the aparthotel, which shares the former Tivoli Theatre site, three spaces are currently unoccupied.

A site map in the passageway leading onto Francis Street indicates that two of these are earmarked for retail, while a third is for performances and exhibitions.

The latter is glass-walled and supported by concrete pillars. Its interior is empty, save for several large containers alongside some duvets, wrapped in plastic and stacked on a pallet.

The aparthotel was opened in January, a Staycity spokesperson says, after the site was acquired by global asset manager DWS in 2019 and leased to the aparthotel group.

But, six months on from its opening, plans for this adjoining cultural space – which was included after council planners flagged the need for a cultural facility there in local area plans – remain in their infancy.

According to the Staycity spokesperson, they are considering various options for the use of the arts and culture space.

A school for the performing arts has expressed an interest in using the new space. Locals have said they want the square to be managed as an open space for cultural, social and community events.

Alarms were raised, however, by councillors, TDs and locals, after a planning application was submitted on 2 June, to erect an external gate.

The application says the gates will be open during daylight hours, and for events, but critics say they still fear an erosion of the openness of what was supposed to be a public space.

A Cultural Hub

The Tivoli Theatre was first opened on Francis Street in 1934, according to the venue’s website.

Initially, a cine-variety theatre, in the late-1930s it was repurposed as a cinema, which then closed in 1964.

Anthony Byrne bought the property in 1981, and six years later, the theatre was reborn as a live-music venue. Over the next three decades, it saw live performances from the Beastie Boys, Sinead O’Connor, Rage Against the Machine and a pre-debut-album Fontaines D.C.

The venue established itself as a local cultural hub, contributing to the city’s nightlife by hosting the electronic music club night District 8 between 2014 and 2019.

But, on 22 December 2016, Byrne applied for permission to demolish the theatre.

In its place, he proposed a 298-bed, six-storey aparthotel, courtyard, gym, restaurant, retail and non-retail service outlets, and a bicycle-hire shop.

The 500-person venue did not contribute to the streetscape, was in relatively poor condition, and due to its capacity, was not viable like nearby Vicar Street, Byrne argued in his justification for the development.

Making a Condition

When Byrne first applied to knock down the Tivoli Theatre, the space now designated for a performance and arts space in the square was intended to be a gymnasium.

Dublin City Council planners asked the owner to address concerns around the loss of the theatre, without any replacement cultural facilities. The Liberties Local Area Plan also said there should be cultural or community use on part of the site.

Byrne revised the plan.

In place of the originally proposed gymnasium and seven of the aparthotel units, he drew in a new performance space that would be provided to accommodate cultural performances.

Outdoors, the courtyard was also put forward as space for further performances and cinema screenings.

Tivoli Square, looking towards Francis Street. Photo by Michael Lanigan.

Along with the application, Byrne submitted a letter from Helen Jordan, founder of the Helen Jordan Stage School, located on Aungier Street.

Jordan says her school for the performing arts had in the past used the Tivoli Theatre to put on productions.

In her letter of interest, she expressed a hope that the school could go on to use the new cultural facilities.

“I had always wanted to do classes around that area,” she says. “Because I think there is incredible talent that has come out of the Liberties, as in people like Imelda May, Tony Kenny and Brendan Grace.”

Green Light

Dublin City Council refused permission for the project at first but Byrne brought an appeal to An Bord Pleanála, and the board approved the development on 8 January 2018.

Twelve months later, the Staycity Group said that global asset manager DWS had bought the Tivoli Theatre site on behalf of one of its institutional funds.

DWS and Staycity developed the site in partnership, with Staycity taking a 25-year full repairing and insurance lease, according to the aparthotel group.

A spokesperson for the Staycity Group said they are currently considering various options for the use of the arts and culture space at its new aparthotel on the site of the former Tivoli Theatre.

“Discussions are underway with several parties,” they said, “but we are not yet at a stage where we can confirm any details.”

Gerard Egan, director of corporate affairs at An Bord Pleanala, said there wasn’t any specific timeframe or time limit in place for the developer to meet such conditions as the opening of a new cultural facility in the plaza.

Jordan, who runs the stage school, says she intends to ask again about using the planned cultural facilities in the autumn.

Her hope, she says, is that these might be available to accommodate the singing, dancing and drama classes that she and her daughter run.

“It would be to develop the talent in the area, young talent, who could go on for a possible career, or just to do it for their health and wellbeing,” she says.

DJ and campaigner with Give Us The Night, Sunil Sharpe, says the demolition of the Tivoli Theatre should never have happened.

“Now as new businesses, including pubs, start to emerge on Francis Street, it’s all the more perplexing that no flagship cultural venue exists there,” Sharpe says.

“A healthy, functioning, multi-use venue, with lots of history behind it, was removed from Dublin 8,” he says. “The council has to preserve some type of cultural footprint within this space and to hold the new operator accountable on agreed commitments.”

Incremental Changes

On 2 June, Cantarini Limited – a subsidiary of Staycity Limited – applied for permission to erect a steel gate outside the passageway from Francis Street to the internal hotel courtyard.

The site notice, fixed inside the granite passageway, specified that it would consist of a pedestrian gate and vehicular gate.

The Staycity spokesperson says the space is still intended for public access.

“The intention is to have the gates open during daylight hours and closed during the hours of darkness to deter any anti-social behaviour,” they say. “Staycity would like the option to close it if need be.”

Former Dublin City senior planner Kieran Rose calls it a misuse of the planning system.

Rose was not opposed to the development on the theatre site, he says. “I’m all in favour of high-quality development in the Liberties.”

“It is the dumbing down of the integrity of the planning system,” he says. “[They’re] demolishing the theatre, but providing a potential arts and cultural space, a public space in lieu of that. Then they come back and strip out the public gain.”

Locals have objected to the gate.

Austin Campbell, executive director of the nearby Robert Emmet Community Development Project, submitted an objection to the application for the gate.

“The provision of Tivoli Square remaining an open space for cultural, social and community events was a significant element of gaining community/public approval for the Staycity Aparthotel development,” he wrote.

Among the reasons Dublin City Council should refuse to allow the company to put in the gate, Campbell continues, is that it would detract from the provision of cultural and event open spaces in the city.

Green Party TD Patrick Costello also says adding gates to the square’s entrance reneges on the condition that the space would be a public, cultural space.

“I can appreciate that things may change,” Costello says. “Once there is a planning decision, it shouldn’t be immutable. But these are particular aspects that are a part of the context in which the decision was originally made.”

“The planning authority needs to be alive to these kinds of piecemeal, incremental applications,” he adds.

Sharpe of Give Us The Night says the matter of the gate is not entirely unreasonable, although it is premature.

“Dublin City Council’s response should be very simple: show us a clear demonstration of what will be provided culturally, then we’ll talk about your gate,” he says.

New hotel developers in the city need to involve local communities, he says.

“If the operator, even as a token, had put on a number of events this summer, to show the local community what to expect, that’s something people can buy into,” he said. “Suddenly you’re not so much of an outsider anymore and requests for gates and so on, are a bit more palatable.”

The Bigger Picture

Says Liberties local Francis Madigan, “One of the reasons they got planning and the loss of the Tivoli is that there should be outdoor space and cultural space.”

One of the ideas he favours is that the square could still be a space to accommodate traders such as those in the now-closed Dublin Flea Market, which was previously located in Newmarket Square until 2019, and later the Digital Hub.

“It’s a bigger issue,” he says. “What kind of a Liberties do we want?”

Costello, the TD, says in his letter of objection, the gating of access to Francis Street would affect the council’s longstanding urban design ambition to provide a new pedestrian street through the site.

The route, set out in the Liberties Local Area Plan, Costello describes, would link Swift’s Alley with Francis, Thomas and Vicar Street.

Sinn Féin Councillor Máire Devine says planning permission was provided by the planning authorities in good faith.

“Then, they come back effectively blocking off public access,” she says. “Permeability there around Vicar Street was in the Dublin City Development Plan, it was in the Liberties Areas Plan, that could now be all up in the air if this is granted.”

Dublin City Council’s press office said that, as the council is still assessing the application, it is unable to comment on the matter at this time.

Michael Lanigan is a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture for Dublin Inquirer. His work also appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post. You can reach him at michael@dublininquirer.com.

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