Facebook: The Next Storey

A CGI view from the latest application for Facebook’s EMEA Headquarters in Ballsbridge, showing an additional fifth storey on the two ranges facing the RDS. The recently approved pedestrian bridge over the main courtyard is clearly visible. Image: Henry J Lyons Architects / Dublin City Council Planning Department.

By Alexander Kearney

Almost immediately after winning permission to make dramatic changes to its new Ballsbridge complex, Facebook has now applied for permission to add another storey to the front two ranges for its new headquarters opposite the RDS.

The latest application, lodged on the 16th January, marks the latest step in the transformation of the former AIB Bankcentre into the teeming hub of Facebook’s European, Middle Eastern and Asian (EMEA) operations.

NewsFour is the first newspaper to report on these ambitious plans. In early December, it was also the first to report on Facebook’s now successful proposal to add a series of striking ‘sky bridges’ connecting the different buildings on the campus. Now NewsFour looks at what these changes might mean for Facebook’s future in Dublin 4, and asks: just how big can Facebook Ballsbridge grow?

On November 8th 2018, on the very day Facebook publicly announced it would take out a long-term lease for the entire 14-acre site, Fibonacci Property ICAV applied to make substantial changes to its previously granted scheme at the front of the campus. Fibonacci Property ICAV is the property vehicle of Johnny Ronan’s Ronan Group Real Estate (RGRE).

We detailed those alterations, including a dramatic aerial glass bridge that would span the main entrance courtyard, redesigned staircase atria, further bridges linking to existing buildings, and a total increase of almost a metre (0.925m) to the permitted height of the two new ranges. These highly visible additions received no written objections from local residents and were approved by the City Council in a little over two months after being lodged. Those changes cannot now be appealed.

Yet NewsFour can also reveal that the applicant had raised the possibility of adding a fifth storey with planners even before submitting its November application. This fact is confirmed by hand-written minutes from a pre-application consultation held on the 21st August 2018, but only released by the Council on the 16th January 2019. The proposal for an extra level is explicitly noted as “1 additional floor.”

However, perhaps the most startling item recorded in these notes is a figure of “c. 8,000 employees.” It is not known whether Facebook specified this number to the RGRE representatives who attended the meeting, or whether RGRE, or the architects and consultants present offered this as an upper ‘notional’ figure. Just recently, Facebook Ireland’s head of office, Gareth Lambe, has said that the new campus could accommodate up to 7,000 staff. Yet on the 21st January 2019, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, declared that the company would hire a further 1,000 workers in Ireland during this year alone, covering the fields of engineering, safety, legal affairs, policy, marketing and sales. This would see a 20% increase in its workforce here, from a current total of around 4,000.

One explanation for the recent spate of applications on the Ballsbridge campus is a reflexive effort by the company to keep pace with a rapidly expanding Irish presence. Another reason could be that the applicant believes the odds of winning approval for substantial changes are improved by adopting an incremental approach to its planning requests. RGRE / Fibonacci ICAV only submitted its formal plans for an additional fifth storey after it had first gained approval for its aerial pedestrian bridges and repositioned atria. It made this application just five days after the Council declared in favour of its previous application.

The full picture of campus development is complicated by the fact that, though there is only one tenant, there are two developers: Fibonacci ICAV (for the ranges being built immediately opposite the RDS); and Davy Target Investments ICAV (for the existing rear centre-piece, from which AIB will soon depart).

This division reflects the property subdivision of the site made by AIB over a dozen years ago. It is nonetheless clear that there is close cooperation between both sets of developers and architects across the entirety of the complex.

On the 1st August 2018, Davy Target Investments ICAV applied to make significant internal and external alterations to its existing buildings, including the addition of a new fifth floor extension to the main facade looking down the central courtyard. On the 1st November, the Council granted those changes, again without objection from local residents. A week later Fibonacci ICAV submitted its application for aerial bridges and other works.

Yet how do these successive revisions add up in terms of total floor area? As of last summer, the combined permitted total floor area of both halves of the campus stood at a shade under 70,000 sq m (53,400 sq m to the front, and 16,397 sq m at the rear). If the latest application succeeds, the total floor area will rise to nearly 77,000 sq m (57,140 sq m and 19,642 sq m), making an increase of just over 9%. For comparison, the projected size of Facebook’s new London headquarters at King’s Cross will be 56,000 sq m, with room for some 6,000 workstations.

Whether residents in Ballsbridge object to this prospect is another matter. The addition of an extra floor to the facade of the rear centre-piece is unlikely to impact on Serpentine Avenue, the closest residential street to the campus, running along the east side of the complex. The addition of aerial bridges might have been an issue for planners worried about visual clutter, but in the event, no such concern was raised.

However, the addition of an extra storey to the two front ranges could well meet with resistance. In 2016, after receiving a number of appeals, Bord Pleanála insisted that a proposed fifth floor be dropped from the original RGRE scheme before giving its assent to the development. The most recent application argues that the fifth floor currently proposed would be well recessed from the building line, and therefore its impact on the immediate neighbourhood would be markedly reduced.

On seeing the accompanying elevations and renders, concerned residents may differ on that point. Their apparent silence during the past six months of successive applications might give Ronan and his backers some confidence that this latest expansion will prevail without challenge.

Consultants for the proposal offer another justification: namely, the Government’s recently released Urban Planning and Development Height Guidelines, 2018. These promote increased building heights in “locations with good public transport accessibility, particularly town/city cores.” The notes for the pre-application consultation refer to the applicant’s “need to demonstrate a different policy context.” The current height guidelines were published on the 7th December, over three months after the August consultation took place.

It is far from certain that these will be the last major changes sought by either Fibonacci or Davy Target Investments, even if the desired fifth storey is granted. The deadline for observations on the current application is the 19th February.

Planning and development is a public process. You have the right to participate in this process by commenting on planning applications or by making complaints about current developments.

Everyone has this right – even if you are not personally affected by the application or development.