Plans for the redeveloped Abbey Theatre to rise to 12 storeys, which would have made it one of the tallest buildings in Dublin city centre, have been scaled back after concerns were raised about the height of the building.
Correspondence released under freedom of information (FoI) legislation between Owen Keegan, the council’s chief executive, and Frances Ruane, the chair of the Abbey Theatre, shows Mr Keegan was given a design presentation in 2021 featuring a 12-storey “fly tower” on the corner of Abbey Street and Marlborough Street.
On March 25th, 2021, Mr Keegan wrote to Ms Ruane expressing reservations. “The City Council has not ruled out the possibility of a 12-storey tower and the extra floor but we have asked for a more integrated approach to the overall design strategy,” he said. “A more coherent rationale for the massing of the new structures is required. It is also worth bearing in mind that there appears there is no obvious requirement for the area of floor space proposed.”
Mr Keegan questioned whether the additional height was necessary. “It seems to be driven more by a desire to create a landmark than to provide additional space,” he said. “Ultimately this matter can only be resolved by further engagement between your architects and the deputy city planner, Mary Conway.”
Responding to Mr Keegan a day later, Ms Ruane stressed the plans had yet to be finalised. “At this point the project team is not making any specific height proposals but is, I am advised, wisely exploring the height issue in relation to the building envelope parameters required to accommodate the new Abbey, and in the context of other buildings in the area – a natural starting point for this pre-planning stage,” she said.
She said the final design proposals had yet to be presented to the board for approval.
“My reference to greater height in what I showed you relates to the fact that the stages of the current two theatres are well below ground. This is not good (for so many different reasons, including health and safety and operational costs) and in the new building we need to have the stages at or above ground level, which has implications for the height of the fly-tower,” she said.
Mr Keegan said he accepted “the need for additional height over the stage” and said “the proposed tower element is also not a problem”.
“However, more work is required to ensure both elements work together,” he said.
In a statement this weekend, the Abbey said that while the project is still very much in the pre-planning stages, “there are no plans to extend to 12 storeys”.
“Our current hope is for four storeys on Eden Quay, stepping back to a higher building on Abbey Street, but expecting to keep in line with the height of the VHI building next door [which rises to seven storeys],” it said.
A planning application for the redeveloped theatre is expected later this year as soon as the business case for the project is formally approved by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. The department committed €80 million to the project in 2019.
The new theatre moved a step closer last month when a number of landowners on Abbey Street and Eden Quay withdrew objections to their properties being sold by compulsory purchase order (CPO) to Dublin City Council to facilitate the redevelopment. The CPO related to 18-21 Eden Quay, 24-26 Abbey Street Lower and 7, 8 and 20 Old Abbey Street.
FoI documents show Dublin City Council agreed to pay €2 million to purchase one of the buildings, 24 Abbey Street Lower, last year. Figures relating to the other buildings were redacted.
The theatre has already bought several buildings on the open market to extend its footprint, paying €1.5 million for 15-17 Eden Quay in 2012 and €1.46 million for 22 and 23 Eden Quay at auction in 2016.
During the CPO process, both Ms Ruane and Mr Keegan expressed frustration at delays by An Bord Pleanála (ABP). In April 2022 Mr Keegan told Ms Ruane: “No word from ABP in relation to a decision date and no word on whether or not there will be a public hearing. Very unsatisfactory but also very typical of ABP,” he said.
In October of last year Mr Keegan told Mark O’Brien, executive director of the Abbey Theatre, that the delays were “deeply frustrating” and advised him to “apply political pressure to get this CPO prioritised”.