independent

Friday 18 April 2014

He reached for the sky

John Meagher profiles Garrett Kelleher, whose 150-storey skyscraper dream came to an end this week as the last roar of the Celtic Tiger fades

It was, perhaps, the last great hooley of the Celtic Tiger.

On Wednesday, January 23, 2008, 600 dignitaries led by Hollywood couple Liam Neeson and the late Natasha Richardson, descended on a vast marquee erected in the centre of Dublin's private park, Fitzwilliam Square, to gaze at a model of the Chicago Spire, a futuristic 150-storey skyscraper set to be the world's tallest residential building.

Over the next three days, 1,000 people would visit the site, to witness a spectacular example of Irish can-do. After all, it was a Dublin developer, Garrett Kelleher, who had pledged to make this extraordinary structure a reality. Not only would its dimensions stun the architecture world, but Kelleher was promising apartments as luxurious as any ever built.

Designed by the Spanish star-architect Santiago Calatrava -- responsible for Dublin's James Joyce and Samuel Beckett bridges -- the distinctively twisting building would boast almost 2,000 residential units, with prices starting at $750,000 for a studio apartment, memorably described by the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic Blair Kamin as "shag-a-delic, Austin Powers-like". Those in the market for a duplex penthouse with views over Lake Michigan would have to fork out $40 million.

The urbane, if normally media-shy, Kelleher was joined by Calatrava at the Dublin launch and they talked up the Chicago Spire with all the finesse of master salesmen. With Ireland's economy thought to be so buoyant, there was little surprise when up to 30 people placed holding deposits on apartments in the development, according to Savills Hamilton Osborne King, the Irish agent employed by Kelleher.

But Kelleher's dreams of reaching for the skies would be short-lived. The foundation was dug, but construction halted at the end of 2008 when it became clear that the economy would be in trouble for the long haul.

And this week, it was revealed that Anglo Irish Bank would be taking control of the building site, claiming its loans to Kelleher's company, Shelbourne Development, are in default. It is the latest of several high-profile projects in the US that Anglo has taken over as it seeks to recover money for the taxpayer, who is facing having to pump €34 billion into the bank.

Consequently, the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower will remain Chicago's tallest building and Calatrava's grand vision will never be built. The architect, meanwhile, had fallen out with Kelleher just months after the Dublin launch, filing a €11.4m lawsuit for unpaid work.

"I'd say Kelleher is eating humble pie right now," says a former Dublin business associate. "If there's anybody who encapsulated the Celtic Tiger it was him. Private jets here, private jets there. He thought nothing of spending thousands on a turf bucket (he reportedly paid €145,000 for the Georgian peat pail at Adam auctioneers, Dublin in 2005. It had been expected to go for €20,000.)

"He was brash and often rubbed people up the wrong way. But he could certainly talk the talk and I think he really did believe that the Chicago Spire would be built. This was a time when Irish developers thought they were masters of the universe. There was nothing that they couldn't do."

Such self-belief would have been bolstered by the commentary of Chicago's foremost architecture critics, among them Lynn Becker, who wrote at the time: " Donald Trump step aside. Garrett Kelleher may be the most confident developer on the face of the earth."

The son of a dentist, Kelleher attended the well-regarded boys school Belvedere College. Academically astute, his first love was sport and he excelled at tennis. He studied mathematics at Trinity College, but left before graduating after receiving a tennis scholarship to the United States. According to self-styled legend, he arrived in Chicago in 1984 with just $500.

Although a fine tennis player, he wasn't good enough to make it professionally and set about cleaning up in the contract painting and decoration business.

That led to property development and a specialisation renovating old buildings as loft-style apartments.

He returned to Dublin in 1996 to set up Shelbourne Developments and quickly established himself as one of the city's canniest operators thanks to his redevelopment of the old Virgin Megastore and Irish Press buildings as well as the former Department of Justice on St Stephen's Green.

His private office, housed on the Green, is said to be palatial. "It's the most extraordinary office I have ever seen," says a well known business figure who had many dealings with Kelleher. "I'm talking about a level of plushness that you might expect to find in a Sheik's mansion in Dubai."

His taste for luxury was evident in 2000, when he bought a seven-bedroom detached house in Herbert Park, Dublin 4 for an eye-catching IR£5.3m.

Yet, such an outlay was small change for a man doing big deals across Europe, most notably when he acquired the striking Lloyds building in London for €335m in 2004.

His involvement with the Chicago Spire project resulted from his acquaintance with Christopher Carley, president of the Fordham real estate firm. Carley had launched the scheme in 2005, but had been unable to secure the enormous funding required. He cut his losses by selling the site at 400 North Lake Shore Drive.

Donald Trump, who was planning his own super tall building in Chicago, reckoned the Spire would never be built.

Describing it, in his own inimitable way, as "a large, slightly deformed penis", he suggested its construction would be "financial suicide" and there would be no "institution stupid enough to finance it".

But there was. Kelleher was able to purchase the site thanks to a loan secured by the ever-accommodating Sean FitzPatrick and Anglo Irish Bank. He altered Carley's original plans too, abandoning the proposed spire in order to increase the number of floors from 115 to 150.

For a city that had effectively given birth to the skyscraper in the late 19th century and has long been famed for its remarkable skyline, the prospect of once more being at the cutting edge was alluring for many Chicagoans.

The city had lost its status as home to the world's tallest building when the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur opened in 1998, and several subsequent vertiginous 'scrapers pushed it down the pecking order. A beautiful, 2,000-foot building designed by Calatrava and with the backing of an uber-confident Irishman was irresistible.

But even as Fitzwilliam Square was getting ready to host the glitzy launch, and the world's wealthiest capitals -- Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo among them -- were planning their own Chicago Spire sales parties, the rumblings of recession could be discerned. A global recession is not the sort of environment to encourage even the very wealthy to part with their cash for a swish bit of real estate in Chicago.

True to form, the media-wary Kelleher has remained tight-lipped this week, although reports in the US suggest he is planning a smaller, less ostentatious development on the same Chicago site.

The owner of St Patricks' Athletic FC, he is married to Maeve and has six children. He is also reportedly a devout Catholic. With the tribulations brought on by recession, it's fair to assume he will have been praying enthusiastically for a return to better days.

Irish Independent

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