Rugby is religion for Limerick. The city mercifully did not inherit the class exclusivity associated with the sport. In the latter decades of the twentieth century Munster victories, usually over Leinster, sustained Limerick’s morale in the face of prejudice. In gratitude its City and County Council has granted permission for a rugby museum which will shoehorn a seven-storey show-stopper into a Georgian streetscape. With a rugby hero and a billionaire philanthropist tax-exile fronting the project they have the public on side. Does the new class of money and celebrity overrule our planning laws?
A new sports museum for Limerick, was announced in December 2016. Its applicants were Rugby World Experience Ltd set up that same year with a registered address in Lucan, Co. Dublin. It has three Directors: Chairman Paul O’Connell, Paul Foley and Sue-Ann Foley. Former Ireland, Munster and Irish Lions captain Paul O’Connell, Limerick native, basso profundo, family giant, Lidl man of squeaky cleanliness is the perfect frontman. Paul Foley is a former Limerick City Council Senior Executive Officer in the Department of Economic and Planning Development. Sue-Ann Foley is the daughter of JP McManus. Limerick’s greatest/richest son, and Chair of the JP McManus Benevolent Fund.
John Patrick ‘JP’ McManus, money-trader and gambler, hails from humble beginnings but has for 30 years been resident in tax-friendly Geneva, Switzerland, while retaining a suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London. He is a doughty force in Limerick, particularly in Limerick City and County Council which even has a hall named after his most famous horse, Istabraq. His charity has funded schools, palliative care units, and every type of local sports clubs. Any criticism against a JP McManus project in Limerick is an attack on Santa Claus.
It is McManus’ €10m seed funding that is making this project happen. O’Connell has said the rugby museum was a notion put to him by JP McManus during his playing days, but the idea has gained momentum since he retired.
The Dashing Out-Half
An unexpected dash for Rugby World Experience was the commissioning of renowned London-based, Irish-born architect Níall McLaughlin, twice shortlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize. His work includes the extension to the National History Museum London, the Carmelite Prayer room in St Teresa’s Church Dublin and college buildings in Oxford and Cambridge.
The proposal is for a seven-storey building, 32-metres high (the architect originally intended the tower to be 36 metres in height), with a two-storey portico fronting O’Connell Street, and a two-storey block to the rear. There would be a three-storey block built over the existing Fine’s Jewellers, at the junction of O’Connell Street and Cecil Street. Inside, the development would see the existing buildings’ 1335sqm floor area increased to 2787 sqm “multi-media visitor experience, exhibition and education space”, plus retail (81sqm) and café (83sqm) at ground-floor level.
The scheme is context-free: a bold attempt to subvert an aesthetic built up over centuries by breaching the established building height on Limerick’s main street, its beating heart. The design also self-consciously does not replicate the Georgian fenestration rhythm perhaps in an effort to minimise the perception of extra floors.
The plan involves the razing of 40 and 41 O’Connell Street, and of 1 Cecil Street, a corner site on two prominent streetscapes within Newtown Pery, Limerick’s Georgian area.
The Beautiful Game
Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of 1837 called Limerick’s Newtown Pery “one of the handsomest modern towns in Ireland”.
The historic Georgian city is an example of ambitious eighteenth-century Italian-inspired town planning whose integrity should be respected through the retention of the characteristic continuous heights and building-frontage alignment that contributes to a quality unrivalled anywhere in the world, albeit that it has been allowed to dilapidate.
The buildings that stand in the way are not protected but are listed on the National Inventory for Architectural Heritage, an indication that national government thinks they merit protection. There have been some changes to them over the second half of the twentieth century, including the cement-rendering of the façade, the replacement of an earlier shop front and the blocking up of window openings on the side elevation. These could easily be removed.
The off-side rule
Both sides of this site sit within an Architectural Conservation Area (ACA), protected under Section 81 of the Planning and Development Act 2000-2008 which states that an ACA is: “a place, area, group of structures or townscape, taking account of building lines and heights, that is of special architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, scientific, social or technical interest”.
ACA protections extend to the carrying out of works to the exterior of a building within the Area regardless of whether or not it’s a protected structure. The aim of designating areas is to protect their “special characteristics and distinctive features” from inappropriate actions.
The ‘Statement of Character and Identification of Key Threats’ set out in Chapter 10 of the Limerick City and County Development Plan 2010-2016 notes:
“This ACA constitutes the core heart of Limerick City’s Georgian Heritage within the City Centre…The streets of Newtown Pery represent a unique example of eighteenth and nineteenth-century planning in Ireland…The streets leading to The Crescent and Pery Square conform to eighteenth-century town planning, defining the streetscape by their adherence to fixed proportions and ordered harmonious symmetry. They combine to form an architectural heritage of great urbanity and considerable beauty”.
This appears damning for McLaughlin’s acontextual, proportionately unfixed, asymetrical and inharmonious effort.
But the ACA statement goes on:
“The irregularity which emerged in relation to the treatment of heights, facades, and type of buildings combined with the rigid street pattern gives Georgian Limerick a distinct sense of place…All of these features contribute to the strong character of ACA 1A and create a defined ‘sense of place’ within this part of the City Centre”.
As to the proposal for demolition in an ACA, Policy BHA18 of the Limerick Development Plan states:
“The reuse of existing buildings is preferable to replacement. Applicants for demolition of buildings that contribute to the character of an ACA will only be granted in exceptional circumstances”. It goes on to advise that “The Council will always start from the premise that the structure should be retained. The replacement buildings should always respect their setting”.The issue is whether there are “exceptional circumstances”. The words seems to connote something intrinsic rather than say the goals of developers. And, if so, whether the “replacement buildings respect their setting”. The word respect – outside of dystopia – seems to imply sympathy to rather than subversion of.
Moreover the Development Plan addresses ‘Key threats to Character in [Newtown Pery] ACA’ which include:
“Insensitive/Inappropriate redevelopment and or additions/extensions impacting the original form, fabric and appreciation of buildings or streetscape when viewed from a public place. It is the repetition of scale, massing and building height that gives Newtown Pery a sense of harmony. It must be read as a unified entity”.
The question is whether the proposal contributes to the sense of a unified entity?
In addition the importance of the various views into and out of the intersection of O’Connell Street and Cecil Street must be considered when protecting the integrity of this ACA. It is obvious from the architect’s renders of the proposed seven-storey tower that an elegant quart is being poured into a pint site, that it will dominate the street hence posing a threat to its distinctive character. It will be a greedy ‘look-at-me’ showpiece incongruous with its setting and indeed the egalitarian and civic orientations of Limerick rugby.
The issue with this development is that the seven-storey building is three storeys higher than the four-storey height-line on O’Connell Street. These upper floors above the parapet line would not be for public entry, despite the impressive views they would no doubt provide over the city towards the river. It is intended to be for administrative purposes, with an executive meeting room which predictably will be available only for Limerick’s elite, like the corporate box in Thomond Stadium– no doubt intended for what Roy Keane impugned as the prawn sandwich brigade.
Defenders of this rearing tower have cited the Augustinian Church (1938) which is the only structure to break the building line on that side of O’Connell Street, as a precedent. However, as stated in the Architectural Heritage Protection Guidelines for Planning Authorities (2004) set out by the Department of Heritage: “The scale of new structures should be appropriate to the area and not its biggest buildings”.
In the report carried out by its Development Applications Unit, the Government’s Department of Heritage favours retaining the existing buildings, explaining “While they have been altered they retain sufficient architectural heritage special interest as justifies their retention and appropriate adaptation”. It warns:
“It is important that any permitted development does not set a precedent for standard commercial development of narrow sites (single or combined) in domestic-scale streets for rising above the established parapet line, as this is an important characteristic of the ACA”. Furthermore the development “substantially breaks the established parapet height of this side of O’Connell Street and risks setting a precedent for this essentially domestic-scale ACA notwith- standing the civic purpose of the proposed development”.
Out of Play
There is no indication from the planning application that any consideration was given to constructing the museum somewhere less architecturally sensitive. Dock Road near the river, Wickham or Parnell Streets or anywhere in the crumbling area around the train station, for example. There is no shortage of options. There are noble intentions behind this project and it could simply be a case of the right design for the wrong place. McManus might usefully talk to opponents of the scheme about practical alternatives.
The sponsor may change
Permission was granted for this scheme on the weak basis that this is an exception to the rule as it would be a public building, a civic enterprise. Team Rugby World Experience has made clear that the intention is that the museum should be not-for-profit, except for the storeys above the parapet line.
However, many museums – initially charitable in purpose – finish up for profit or closed. One has only to think of, in Dublin, the disappeared theatre in Busáras; ‘Ceol’, the Irish traditional music centre in Smithfield; and the Screen Cinema on Hawkins Street – all required as planning gain for adjoining commercial developments, but now disappeared. Or the Lighthouse cinema in Smithfield and ‘Pálás’ Cinema in Galway: conceived as not-for-profit but now proposed as tidy earners for new commercial operators. Or ‘Epic’, the new Irish Emigration Museum. owned by a former worldwide CEO of Coca Cola and housed in what was intended to be a public cultural space, ‘CHQ’ on Dublin’s Custom House Quay. There are no guarantees the rugby museum will stay not-for-profit or comply with any other terms like it, that are not enforceable under planning legislation.
Risk of Citation
Unlike most Development Plan provisions an ACA gets national statutory protection. Breaching its terms would actually be illegal.
Limerick City and County Council would permit the construction of a new build to the detriment of an ACA. It risks contravening not only its own Development Plan but the conservation policies that Ireland signed up to in the Granada Convention but also the Planning and Development Act. Undermining the character of an ACA is permissible only for infrastructure deemed necessary such as roads, railways and bridges – and there have been very few exceptions.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Limerick’s senior Planner requested further information about the scheme in his report but this was overruled by the City Manager, Conn Murray – swayed no doubt by the excellence of the architecture and the celebrity of the players. On 14 February 2018 Council planners gave the development the green light subject to 22 conditions. But just as the game of rugby is democratic so is Irish planning and there is a right of appeal.
There were two objections to the proposal: one from David Fine of Fine’s Jewellers and the second from An Taisce’s Limerick Association, which criticised, as is its remit, demolition of late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century buildings.
McManus himself acknowledges the museum’s historic location: “We are also delighted that the location of the centre is in the heart of Georgian Limerick which has many historic values. The sport of rugby is at the core of Limerick, its people and visitors, and we are absolutely delighted it will be celebrated and treasured here”, he effused and went on: “We are very excited about this initiative for Limerick which will be the first of its kind in Ireland. Hopefully it will encourage more private investment to the city centre renewal programme and will further enhance exchequer returns as well as creating spin off jobs as a result”.
The museum is designed to improve the visitor experience in Limerick and increase sports tourism revenue, now the fastest growing sector of international tourism generating an estimated at $400bn globally annually. All things being equal, it’s a good idea. The plans have been described by O’Connell as “very special for the city”, and the developers say they will “celebrate the sport of rugby on a global scale, through a state-of-the-art and iconic building”. Both Paul O’Connell and Limerick Mayor Sean Lynch tellingly also referred to the design as that vogue word, “iconic”.
All to play for
It is the responsibility of the Limerick Planning Authority to protect our architectural heritage. This is a turning point in Limerick planning history. If this development goes ahead at this height dominating the street with a detrimental effect on its special character then anything goes for this ACA, for historic Limerick. Those who with a sneaking disdain for the marvellous heritage of this great city will have triumphed.
It is envisaged that the museum would open in September 2019. It is understood that the Irish Georgian Society is reticent about appealing to An Bord Pleanála so an appeal will depend on the mood of the only other bodies with standing to appeal, Fine’s and An Taisce.
No one here has forgotten that rugby is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen. Limerick’s gentlemen need to come to the rescue of the beleaguered world-class heritage that makes it what it is. The development should proceed elsewhere and respect Limerick’s unique heritage. Alone it stands.
Máire Nic Ghiolla Íosa