An Bord Pleanála has approved plans for the redevelopment of Parnell Square as a “cultural quarter” for Dublin, with a new city library, public plaza, and the restoration of some of the city’s finest Georgian houses. The development is expected to cost about €110 million – almost double its original estimate – with Dublin City Council footing up to of 45 per cent of the bill and the rest of the cost to be funded by philanthropic donations.
The council has been granted permission for the long-awaited move of the main city library from a first-floor unit in the Ilac shopping centre, where it has been for more than 30 years, to a premises three times larger in eight refurbished and extended Georgian houses flanking the Hugh Lane Gallery. Six of the houses were formally Coláiste Mhuire, a Christian Brothers school on the northwest of the square which was relocated in 2003, with the buildings transferred to the State as part of the redress scheme for survivors of institutional abuse. Two other Georgian houses immediately west of the Hugh Lane Gallery at numbers 20 and 21 Parnell Square will also form part of the development.
In addition to the library the project will include a 200-seat conference centre, a music centre, education facilities and a café and exhibition space. An existing theatre, which dates from the 1960s, and is attached to the rear of the school buildings, will be demolished to make way for the conference centre which will be housed in a five-storey building. On-street car parking will be removed from Parnell Square North, the roadway will be reduced in width and a new public plaza created in front of the library buildings and the gallery.
The council made its application to the board last September. No objections were lodged, and there were no requests for a planning hearing. The board has approved the council’s plans almost in their entirety, with just one significant revision – the council had proposed two lanes of traffic on Parnell Square North but the board has reduced this to one and has ordered that a segregated two-way cycle lane be installed. Lord Mayor of Dublin Nial Ring described the granting of planning permission as “brilliant”.
“This part of the north inner city will eventually be a cultural, social and economic hub. The whole area will be transformed with the completion of this new city cultural quarter. The fact that it is being part-funded by philanthropy is an exciting, new and innovative way of giving life to this neglected part of town.” The redevelopment of Parnell Square has been mooted since Coláiste Mhuire came into State ownership 16 years ago. The school was initially proposed as a new home for the Abbey Theatre, but this plan was scrapped in 2004 because the cost of buying an adjacent building on Granby Row, seen at the time as essential to the scheme, was too high.
In 2005 the council announced plans to turn the square into a cultural and entertainment hub, with plans to convert Coláiste Mhuire into a luxury hotel and develop the old Ambassador cinema, originally built as a theatre in the 1760s, as a “cabaret-type” venue where dinner would be served with a show. Two years later the council changed its mind about the cabaret, and decided the Ambassador should be the new location for the city library. However, in 2011 it decided the former cinema was too small. In 2013, the council, in consultation with the Office of Public Works (OPW), settled on Coláiste Mhuire for the library location, which would form the centre of a “cultural cluster” on the square which includes the Dublin Writers’ Museum, the Hugh Lane Gallery and the Irish Writers’ Centre.
In 2013 the council published its plans for the project, which it said would cost €60 million and be completed by the end of 2017. US real estate investment company Kennedy Wilson undertook to fundraise for the newly formed Parnell Square Foundation, which would develop the scheme with a minimum of 55 per cent of the costs to be funded through donations, and the rest from the council using a loan from the European Investment Bank. In 2016 it emerged that the expected costs had risen to €100 million and the target opening date pushed out to 2020. However, with delays in submitting the application to An Bord Pleanála, it is understood the cost has now risen to €110 million. It is hoped the library will open in 2023.
Parnell Square, formerly Rutland Square, is the earliest of Dublin’s Georgian squares, with houses of greater size and quality than the squares built later. The park in the centre of the square, now dominated by 20th century extensions to the Rotunda Hospital, was built before the hospital as “pleasure gardens” for the square’s residents and other fashionable people in the mid-1700s. The houses on the north side of the square were the most sought after, having an elevated position and sweeping views over the gardens to the Dublin mountains.