Selling our largest theatre: the public case for a cultural jewel
The country’s largest theatre is up for grabs, caught in crossfire between Nama, the banks and developer Harry Crosbie. But there is a solution with long-term benefit for the citizen
The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre at Grand Canal Dock. Photograph: Alan Betson
The first thing to grasp about the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, the premium arts venue in Ireland that is now being offered for sale by Nama for just €20 million, is that it was built on public land and with a public purpose.
Its origins lie, oddly enough, in the discovery of natural gas off the Irish coast, which made the old Dublin Gas operation on a huge site around Grand Canal dock redundant. The site was taken over by a public body, the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA).
The most attractive part of the site was the western end of the dock. The DDDA decreed that the corner of this site nearest to the River Liffey would be reserved for a building with a social, public or community purpose. The deal was that a developer would construct this building at his own expense but could deduct the full cost from the price of the rest of the site, which eventually contained 45,500sq m of office and retail space.
In effect, ownership of this lucrative block would be exchanged for the creation of a significant public building.
This is indeed what happened: the site was given initially to a developer called Terry Devey. He in turn passed it on to Joe O’Reilly, best known for his development of the Dundrum Town Centre. It was agreed that the public building in question would be a theatre.
Since the price of design and construction would be deducted from the overall cost of the block, there was an incentive to create an expensive, signature structure that would in turn enhance the value of adjacent developments.
Hence, Dublin got a state-of-the-art Daniel Libeskind-designed theatre and in return for approximately €75 million spent on initial construction, O’Reilly got a prime development site.
There was, at this point in 2006 and 2007, an extraordinary opportunity for the State to acquire a world-class theatre within walking distance of O’Connell Street for a tiny sum: probably no more than the €4 million that was required to complete the fit-out of the theatre.
The theatre, as I understand it, was offered by the DDDA to the Department of Arts and Culture. There had been much talk of the Abbey Theatre moving to the docklands, of the need for an opera house in Dublin and even of a possible new home for the National Concert Hall.
However, the department decided not to take the offer of the theatre. It was instead sold to the developer Harry Crosbie for what he himself calls a “nominal” sum of €10 million.
In discussions about the sale of the BGE theatre, it has been widely reported that Crosbie bought a “lease” on the theatre. This is technically true, but in fact misleading. Crosbie got a 200-year “lease” at a “peppercorn” rent (ie no rent at all) – in effect full ownership.