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'It's been really hard to get a fundraiser': How Dublin City Council and Kennedy Wilson struggled to get Parnell Quarter off the ground

The project was expected to cost over €100 million before running into difficulties.

Parnell. Parnell Square West, Dublin Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

NEW DOCUMENTS SHOW that Dublin City Council and real estate firm Kennedy struggled to appoint a fundraiser for the ambitious Parnell Square Cultural Quarter project. 

The quarter, first unveiled in 2016, heralded plans for a transformation of Parnell Square West including a new City Library. 

The US real estate firm – which holds a number of important assets in Dublin city – agreed to lead a philanthropic drive for the project, which originally had a price tag of €60 million. 

As questions were raised about how the project was going to be funded – and how long it could take – the council and Kennedy Wilson disagreed over who should lead the drive to create the quarter, emails show. 

Costs then soared and councillors demanded answers. The council in the end opted to develop the City Library by itself, leaving Kennedy Wilson’s future involvement in the project uncertain.  

‘Huge Concern’

The city centre project was first launched in 2016 with an estimated €60 million price tag. 

The council planned to refurbish a total of eight Georgian houses as part of its City Library plan; Georgian houses numbers 20 and 21 along with houses 23 to 28, the site of the former Irish school Coláiste Mhuire.

A music centre, design space, business library, conference space, education centre, café and exhibition area all formed part of the planned library complex.

In total, the space was set to be 11,000 sqm and due for completion by 2023.

In 2018, The Parnell Square Foundation was set up as a private company to head up the project. 

Yet, in March, councillors raised concerns that fundraising for the project hadn’t progressed since July 2018 and that the project’s costs had jumped to €100 million. 

“It’s a huge concern,” said Independent councillor Vincent Jackson in March. “We’re obviously very anxious to go with this project. That’s a key component of the project, the financial viability.”

Kennedy Wilson initially donated €2.5 million and agreed to help raise the rest through philanthropic donations. 

As the project’s cost increased, the council then said it had come to an agreement whereby Kennedy Wilson needed to raise a minimum of 51% of the project costs. To raise the remainder, the council planned to take a loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB).

Over two years after the project first launched, only €5 million had been committed to it. 

“Based on previous experience of similar projects internationally we are confident that the required minimum 55% in philanthropic funding will be achieved,” the council told TheJournal.ie in March. 

A design team made up of council architects had been appointed to the project but a fundraiser was required to raise this money. 

‘In Sales Mode’

Documents released under FOI show that Kennedy Wilson proposed hiring a fundraising coordinator for the Parnell Square Quarter who – at the time – “was deciding” between it and another project. 

“I am somewhat in sales mode,” a representative of Kennedy Wilson wrote to Chief Executive Owen Keegan on 4 April.

The coordinator, emails show, had raised concerns that Parnell Foundation needed “to quickly start developing a better vision” for the non-library elements of the project and should create a business plan which can be shared with potential donors. 

Kennedy Wilson wrote that its fundraising coordinator “is more than qualified to lead this process” but “is concerned she may not get the support” from Dublin City Council. 

The firm also said the fundraiser could form part of a later-appointed management team to oversee the Parnell Square Library. 

library Artist's impression of the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter. Source: Dublin City Council

Keegan responded, arguing that – although it is “reasonable” to develop a business plan for the project’s non-library elements – this fundraiser should instead assist Dublin’s City Librarian in preparing this plan for the project. 

“I see no problem with [the fundraiser] having an input into the preparation of the Programme. But the work should…be led by the City Librarian,” he said. 

Later that day, Kennedy Wilson responded: “Ultimately, it’s the City’s project…but we need to raise the money and I need [the fundraiser] to have confidence that she can have some influence over this area so she feels the fundraising goals are achievable,” a representative said. 

“It’s been really hard to get a fundraiser to take on this project,” Kennedy Wilson responded. 

“Local candidates simply do not have enough confidence or experience in the International market to get it done. The overseas candidates who have wider experience are harder to attract so we are working to get [the fundraiser] across the line.

“Don’t think there is that much between us so hopefully we will have a great meeting,” it said. 

‘Disappointing Development’ 

By mid-April, the fundraiser had been appointed to the City Library project. 

In mid-April, Keegan wrote to President of Kennedy Wilson Europe, Peter Collins, saying that it will likely “be some time before the fundraising campaign bears fruit in terms of actual donations/pledges or…before we have a clear view of its likely success” but that he was keen to move the project to the next stage to avoid construction inflation costs and “avoid any further loss of design team momentum”.

By this stage, the costs of the project had risen to over €100 million. 

On 29 April, Keegan wrote to Collins again informing him that, although planning permission had been granted by An Bord Pleanála for the City Library at Parnell Square, “it seems likely at this stage that the design team will have to be stood down and there will be a further significant delay to the project”. 

Soon after, the City Library fundraising coordinator advised the council and the Parnell Square Foundation that it was likely to take over three years to raise the money needed for the City Library project. 

In July, Keegan wrote to councillors informing them that the cost of the project had soared from €60 million to €130 million. 

In a “most disappointing and unwelcome development” the Parnell Foundation set up to raise philanthropic funding could not guarantee the money, said Keegan. 

He said that Dublin City Council should “assume responsibility for the development of the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter” and start building the library, which is projected to cost €80 million.

Independent councillor Gary Gannon – who chairs the council’s Arts Committee – has said questions remain over Kennedy Wilson’s involvement in the Parnell Square project. 

Gannon told TheJournal.ie: “The entire project should come back fully under the auspices of the city council”. 

Gannon said he does not think “a project of this size is not going to be achieved if we’re relying on the goodwill of a private interest.”

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council confirmed that an assessment to see if the project can be delivered on a “phased basis” has been completed.

Phase One, it said, involves completing refurbishment works to No 27 Parnell Square so that the City Library element of the Cultural Quarter can be built. 

Phase Two involves the refurbishment of remaining Georgian buildings on Parnell Square West and public realm improvements. 

The council is currently working out how much both phases will cost but added that “DCC is not working with Kennedy Wilson” on Phase One. 

“While Kennedy Wilson has proposed options for possible uses that might be philanthropically funded as part of a future phase, these have not been discussed in any detail as DCC’s priority is to progress Phase One,” the council spokesperson said. 

In response to queries relating to its future involvement in the project, a spokesperson for Kennedy Wilson said it “remains committed to the vision for the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter.

“The Parnell Square Foundation, made up of senior representatives from Kennedy Wilson and Dublin City Council has put proposals to [the council] for the arts and cultural element of the project, which would involve significant philanthropic investment.

“We look forward to continuing to work with DCC on their delivery,” the spokesperson said. 

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