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Bono's plan gets their Irish up

The rock star riles preservationists with attempt to renovate a historic Dublin hotel.

February 25, 2008|Dara Doyle | Bloomberg News

U2's Bono helped persuade President Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to increase African aid and cancel a portion of Third World debt. But 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 $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 frontman, 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.

Although 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 $3,970-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.

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

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

The hotel made an operating profit of $218,736 in 2006, but investors wrote off $13.3 million of loans that year, accounts filed in Dublin show. In 2005, the hotel reported a loss of $845,250. 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 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.

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.

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