The Digital Hub: the new Googleland alternative?

Since the project’s inception, close to 200 companies have progressed through the Digital Hub, generating thousands of skilled jobs

 

Fifteen years ago, Bertie Ahern had a vision of developing a digital hub in the Liberties area of Dublin to cater for companies involved in information technology, with Media Lab Europe – a business venture by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts – as its anchor.

A State agency was set up in 2003 to advance this bold plan. It was chaired by Paddy Teahon, then secretary-general in the Taoiseach’s Department, with management services initially being provided by MCO, headed by Laura Magahy.

But instead of materialising in the Liberties, the digital hub popped up in and around the Grand Canal Dock, mainly because there was a lot of newly built offices that could be snapped up down there. “Googleland” was the outcome, even thought it was entirely unplanned.

In the meantime, Media Lab Europe fell by the wayside, finally closing down its Dublin operation in January 2005 due to a failure to generate commercial revenue. As a result, the Government was left with a dud investment of €50 million in the flagship digital hub project.

This had included the acquisition of key sites on the north and south sides of Thomas Street from Diageo plc, whose Guinness brewery still dominates the area. Had these large sites been developed before the property market crashed, Google might have ended up in the Liberties.

However, the developers involved lost the run of themselves, with Manor Park Homes proposing a surreal mini-Manhattan – a cluster of skyscrapers rising to a height of 54 storeys on the esker ridge of Thomas Street that was simply unbuildable. And then the bubble burst.

But the Digital Hub hasn’t gone away, as chief executive Gerry Macken is keen to emphasise.

Even though it has been overshadowed by Googleland, the Liberties still has “the largest cluster of digital media, technology and internet businesses in Ireland”, he says.

“Since the project’s inception, close to 200 companies have progressed through the Digital Hub, generating thousands of skilled jobs,” says Macken, who is on secondment from Dublin City Council where he was head of the finance department’s internal audit unit. Daft.ie, Riverdeep and Amazon’s Irish divisions all started there and it’s currently home to 90 established businesses employing almost 650 people, such as ex-RTÉ Radio One director Helen Shaw’s Athena Media, based in the former Thomas Street public library.

Now renamed Townhouse Twenty2, the one-time library had served for many years as the Brewery Hostel, before it was extensively upgraded by the Digital Hub Development Agency to provide attractive office space for some of its clients, with a south-facing garden at the rear.

More colourful is the refurbished Grainstore, a listed 19th century building that used to be part of Roe’s distillery. Providing nearly 1,000sq m of funky office space, more than 50 per cent pre-let, it will be launched next Wednesday by Minister for Communications Alex White.

Rising up behind it, at a jarring angle, is a €40 million student housing complex, with 500 bed spaces, in new buildings ranging in height from seven to 11 storeys. It’s being developed by London-based Knightsbridge Student Housing, which will manage it on completion.

Macken says his development agency, which is due to reverse into Dublin City Council next year, “is focused on continuing to attract strategic investors and development partners in order to ensure the continued development and regeneration of the Liberties area”.

‘Competitive dialogue’

The agency has just completed the renovation of two derelict shop buildings at the corner of Crane Lane.

“They were about to collapse, but we managed to rescue them with the aid of a very welcome €900,000 grant from the city council’s conservation fund,” Macken says.

“These beautiful examples of early 19th century homes will have retail units at ground level with offices in the original living space above, providing an additional 5,000sq ft of commercial space. Both are of original brown brick and retain their early timber sash windows.”

The agency has also completed the renovation of another historic building, the Gatelodge, on the north side of Thomas Street. Some features restored in this building include a previously hidden tiled cast iron fireplace, and beautiful terrazzo flooring in the stairwell.

Ideas are also being sought for a former Guinness vat house on Crane Street, which has an almost cathedral-like interior, with huge brewing vats still in place.

As for the Digital Hub’s strengths, compared to the newness of “Googleland”, Macken points to the historic environment of the Liberties, exemplified by the old Roe Distillery windmill off Thomas Street.

“We consider ourselves a little more edgy up here.” See thedigitalhub.com

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