Bono's Dublin Hotel Plan Pits Rocker Against Preservationists

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By Dara Doyle

Feb. 21 (Bloomberg) -- U2's Bono helped persuade George W. Bush and Tony Blair to increase African aid and cancel a portion of Third World debt. Ireland's most famous rock star is finding it harder to charm Dublin preservationists as he seeks to expand the 177-year-old Clarence Hotel.

The singer failed to win over opponents with several bottles of wine and lunch at the Clarence in September, said Michael Smith, former chairman of An Taisce, an independent planning watchdog. The 150 million-euro ($220 million) project would triple the hotel's size and top it with a panoramic glass bar.

"The Clarence demolition is an old-fashioned money-driven, anti-environmental exploit," said Smith, 42, who attended the lunch. "Bono is behaving like just another private-jet-addicted property speculator feeding on Ireland's greedy zeitgeist."

It's the latest controversy to entangle the U2 front man, who has worked with governments and corporations to fight AIDS and reduce poverty. Members of the Irish parliament criticized U2 for moving its music publishing company to the Netherlands to avoid taxes in 2006. The band is also behind a new skyscraper called the U2 Tower, which some neighbors call an eyesore.

Bono, whose name at birth was Paul Hewson, bought the 49- room hotel in 1993 with U2 guitarist David Evans, better known as The Edge. The renovation involves tearing down four adjacent Georgian buildings, gutting the hotel and expanding it to 140 rooms.

`Discredited' Design

While critics liken the sky bar to landing a spaceship atop the Clarence, manager Oliver Sevestre said the project was approved in part because it would make the hotel a landmark in Dublin's Temple Bar district. The plans were developed by British architect Norman Foster, perhaps best known for the gherkin- shaped London tower he designed for Swiss Reinsurance Co.

"It's a great asset to sell Dublin and the country," Sevestre said during an interview in the Clarence's 2,700-euro-a- night penthouse suite.

Located on the River Liffey and enclosed by fragments of Dublin's 12th century city walls, Temple Bar is filled with art galleries and pubs.

Foster's architects say preserving the exteriors and salvaging the original fireplaces, windows and doors will retain the essence of the Clarence. That was rejected by the Dublin City Council's conservation architect, Clare Hogan, who called the plan to keep the exteriors alone a "discredited and meaningless" act of historical preservation.

Clinton's Hotel

Nonetheless, city officials approved Foster's plan in November, saying the hotel facelift would help Dublin's economy and therefore justify tearing down protected buildings.

Though the Clarence has attracted guests such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton, it may not have been the band mates' wisest investment.

While the hotel made an operating profit of 148,800 euros in 2006, investors wrote off 9.04 million euros of loans that year, accounts filed in Dublin show. In 2005, the hotel reported a loss of 575,000 euros. The renovation plan is also backed by Clarence investors Paddy McKillen and Derek Quinlan, two Dublin property developers.

"I would say we are making sense financially," Sevestre said. "It is difficult to make more sense financially because the size of the hotel means we can't maximize the price that we charge each night."

It's that pursuit of profit that has left U2 open to criticism. The band is also backing a 120-meter (394-foot) tower in the Dublin's docklands. The U2 Tower, to be completed in 2011, would be the city's tallest building.

"Taken together, these are two egomaniacal projects," said Ian Lumley, a spokesman for An Taisce.

Art Vs. Commerce

Some back Bono and Foster's vision for the hotel.

Conor Martin, who controls the Purty Loft bar opposite the hotel, withdrew his opposition after he was persuaded the project would benefit the city.

"It is a poor reflection on Dublin and the rest of the country if we turn it down," he said in a letter to city officials.

Bono, who wasn't available for an interview, has said there's no conflict between his activism and investments.

"I long since grew out of the idea that artists good, businessmen bad," Bono said Jan. 24 at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. "I got over that one when I was 22."

Smith is taking the Clarence fight to the planning appeals board, which is expected to issue a decision within four months.

Seasoned Campaigner

He is a tenacious opponent. In 1995, angered by what he said was the cozy relationship between politicians and developers, Smith placed a newspaper ad offering a 10,000 Irish-punt ($18,579) reward for information leading to corruption convictions.

Though the reward was never paid, the campaign triggered a 10-year probe of bribery allegations, leading to the current investigation of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's finances. Ahern denies any wrongdoing.

Even after lunch with his "perfectly gracious" host, Smith is carrying on the fight against a man who once gave Pope John Paul II a pair of wraparound sunglasses.

"If assessed for good old-fashioned rock star glamour, this proposal is a success," Smith said in his written appeal against the project. "Unfortunately for the owners, the Clarence is not a pair of sunglasses."

© 2008 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on February 22, 2008 10:14 PM.

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