FORMER MINISTER for the environment Dick Roche rejected a strong recommendation from his department's heritage officers that it should object to plans for the redevelopment of Dublin's Clarence Hotel.
Documents released to The Irish Times show that Mr Roche decided that the department should not recommend a refusal by Dublin City Council, on the basis that the scheme by Foster + Partners would "represent a significant addition" to the city's architecture.
In a handwritten note, he said: "As a layman, the architectural proposals seem to me to have great merit" - even though they would involve demolishing all but the Wellington Quay facades of the hotel and adjoining buildings, all of which are protected structures.
A new eight-storey hotel containing 140 bedrooms - topped by an elliptical flying saucer-style roof - would rise up behind the retained façades. Only some elements of the interior would be salvaged, principally the Clarence's oak-panelled Octagon Bar.
Mr Roche dismissed the recommendation that an objection should be made on the basis that the proposed development would adversely affect historic buildings and views along the Liffey Quays, writing: "Surely what the dept is suggesting is a formula for stasis."
In an e-mail dated February 28th, 2007, Marc Ritchie of the department's architectural advisory unit wrote that "every aspect of the application is wrong" and he did not believe there was "any way in which the impact of the proposed design can be mitigated".
Documentation submitted by the Clarence Hotel Partnership (Bono and the Edge of U2 along with developer Paddy McKillen and financier Derek Quinlan) contained a "substantial amount of padding and waffle" about a "great new design" that would in time be seen as "iconic".
However Mr Ritchie warned Anne Marie Caulfield of the department's planning division that if a commercial development of the type proposed was granted on this basis, "it would provide a carte blanche for developers to demolish any protected structure" in the city.
His draft letter of objection described the proposal as "completely unacceptable in that it shows scant regard for the special interest of the individual protected structures on the site and utterly fails to recognise the historic and visual importance" of their setting.
"The application is for a development which is totally at odds with good conservation practice and will result in a new building that will completely overwhelm the surviving fragments of the protected structures and have a domineering presence" on the Liffey quays.
However, Mr Richie was forced to tone down this strong language in subsequent drafts - all of which still recommended refusal - after discussions with Ms Caulfield and Mary Moylan, then assistant secretary in charge of the department's planning division.
As the deadline for lodging an objection came and went, and the draft was further amended to the point where it became almost anodyne, Mr Ritchie sent an e-mail saying: "I am not able to stand over the report on the proposed Clarence Hotel redevelopment as redrafted" . He added: "I am disappointed that my report and recommendations as issued to DAU [development applications unit] and the minister's office on March 1st will not be issued and that so many of its recommendations and comments have been removed."
Three days after the deadline had passed, Mr Ritchie expressed concern about "the continuing delay by the department in submitting its recommendations to Dublin City Council". Colleague Freddie O'Dwyer agreed that this "should be done as a matter of urgency".
By then, the case had gone to the minister's office and according to a March 8th memo from his policy co-ordinator, Feargal Ó Coigligh, Mr Roche "carefully considered" the proposed development and decided that the department should not recommend a refusal.
"He accepts that the minimal intervention philosophy [in the department's architectural heritage guidelines] should be adhered to except in exceptional circumstances but that this high-quality, landmark proposal meets the criteria for departing from that view."
Just over a year later, when the department was requested by An Bord Pleanála to give its view, the architectural heritage unit was finally permitted to express its objections in a seven-page letter.
By then, John Gormley had taken over from Dick Roche. He approved the letter and also permitted Mr Ritchie to attend the oral hearing.
Last July, however, An Bord Pleanála granted permission.
The Irish Times