Facebook eyes up former Bankcentre

By Alexander Kearney

What’s going on with the AIB Bankcentre? Mystery still surrounds the future of the site after it was revealed earlier this year that AIB intended to vacate the last portion of its purpose-built campus by summer 2019. The bank will relocate to a new headquarters on Molesworth Street, with some of its staff going to premises in Sandyford. It was assumed that its former premises would be leased, and speculation has now centred on a particularly high-profile candidate for tenant.

On the 8th February, Bloomberg reported that Facebook was in talks to agree a staggered move to the 41,800 square metre property, which was greatly expanded to its rear just over a decade ago.
The tech giant has rapidly expanded its Irish presence in recent years, and in late 2017 announced that its Dublin workforce would grow by hundreds from a current figure of some 1,600.

The capital hosts its largest operations centre outside Silicon Valley, and had looked set to become a prime beneficiary of the social network’s inexorable growth. However, the recent revelations of illicit harvesting of Facebook users’ data brought a deluge of bad press. Facebook’s share price nose-dived for a time and the US Federal Trade Commission announced it would investigate the firm’s practices.
Perhaps even more worrying for Facebook’s chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg and company was the risk that public anger might turn to user flight, and a dwindling number of ‘likes’. While it’s still too soon to tell, Facebook seems to have weathered the initial crisis, and Zuckerberg left his hearing with the US Senate looking somewhat stronger than when he entered it.

The public remains wedded to the platform, despite the rumble of ongoing scandal. Barring a major legislative assault in the US and Europe, or the sudden emergence of a serious network rival, Facebook’s Dublin expansion seems set to continue.

The other Bankcentre puzzle concerns the four blocks at the front of the site. These were acquired by Johnny’s Ronan’s property firm, Ronan Group Real Estate (RGRE) in 2015 for 67.5 million euro. The company claimed that its redevelopment of the four-acre site could be worth more than five times that figure when complete.

In October 2016, An Bord Pleanála granted permission to demolish the existing blocks and build a 32,000 square metre scheme, with a capacity for some 2,000 workers, but nothing further has happened to date.
At the time of the decision, RGRE’s Development Director, Shane Whelan said that he expected work to begin within the year, and construction to continue until mid-2019. That was over 18 months ago, and were the scheme to begin now it would not be ready before late 2020 at the earliest.
That delay is all the more strange given the prestige of the site and the current demand for commercial property in D4. The new buildings would contain approximately three times the floor area of the old, and the terms of An Bord Pleanála’s judgement make the prospect of obtaining greater densities unlikely in the near future. So what is Ronan waiting for?

The most likely answer can be found at the other end of the Ballsbridge site. It is believed that negotiations between Serpentine Consortium (which owns the rear blocks AIB wishes to vacate), AIB, and Facebook, have widened to include the campus as a whole. In March, Brian Carey of The Sunday Times reported that “Facebook is considering occupying the entire 10 blocks (sic), which would require the agreement of all three landlords. While the deal under discussion would allow for a staggered occupation, Facebook would start to move in only once it had agreements to occupy all the buildings.”

The three landlords in question are Serpentine Consortium, Davy Target Investments and RGRE. In April, Carey wrote an update that an informed source had said the deal was ‘70% there’; he also expanded on the charged back-story of the 2006 deal that first broke up the campus.

It is unclear whether RGRE is already party to the present negotiations or whether it has simply held off construction until Facebooks’s precise intentions become clear. Given the potential for a unified scheme with a global giant, waiting could be prudent. Ronan was recently left smarting from An Bord Pleanála’s refusal to grant his 22-storey Tara Street skyscraper permission in March. Biding his time here could open up possibilities that might have seemed outlandish when he bought the low-slung blocks three years ago.

It would be a great irony if the existing campus were now to be re-integrated under a single occupant. In the last edition of NewsFour, we provided an overview of Andy Devane’s remarkable fusion of landscape and carefully arranged office buildings. He designed the complex specially for AIB in the 1970s, but in recent decades, Irish banks have tended to sell or divide their old headquarters, often preferring to use them as vehicles for profit, as they restructure and downsize staff.

If Facebook proceeds with the deal, it may wish first to move into AIB’s existing quarters, while waiting for Ronan to complete a slightly amended scheme. But this assumes that a powerful new tenant wouldn’t desire an entirely new campus layout. At some point it likely will, if only to realise greater densities and technical performance under a coherent brand image. This too may have entered into Ronan’s calculations.

Large tech firms like Facebook, Google and Apple, have recently turned to commissioning purpose-built headquarters in the US and London. These have been designed by leading names such as Frank Gehry (Facebook), Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick (Google) and Norman Foster (Apple).

Neither Facebook nor Google have yet commissioned purpose-built schemes in Dublin. So far, they have preferred to rent, buy and adapt finished buildings or those already under planning and construction. At a packed-out talk in
Belvedere College in early May, Ingels discussed his work for Google, but made no reference to the possibility of building in Ireland. The former AIB campus site could offer Facebook, or another tech giant, the clearest and boldest opportunity to do just that. It is hard to think of another site in Dublin 4 that offers similar potential.

The current hiatus suggests that RGRE’s two planned ranges might not now proceed as planned. This would come as a relief to local residents and those who opposed the dismemberment of Devane’s greatest work – but the reprieve could be short-lived. At some future point, a much more ambitious scheme may come into view.