Harry Crosbie: The man who dreamed too big
These are humbling times for debt-strapped Harry Crosbie, a man we associate with the cool, shiny face of reinvented docklands Dublin. But while he contributed to his own downfall, is it fair to throw him into the skip with all the other developers? John Meagher reports
It was in early 1988 when Harry Crosbie first signalled his vision for Dublin. There was widespread bemusement when the then little-known entrepreneur spent almost £1m on the century-old, long-disused CIE Points Works warehouse in the city's rundown docklands and promised to convert it into a world-class concert venue.
But the 41-year-old Dubliner was as good was his word and after pumping £4m into the project, the renamed Point Depot opened for business in November of that year. Huey Lewis and the News was its first headliner.
Over the next 19 years, and before it was closed to make way for what would become the bigger, better O2, the Point welcomed two million people. It was Ireland's default venue for the world's biggest acts, with everyone from U2 to Pavarotti gracing its stage. While Crosbie's early ambition to turn it into an exhibition centre to rival that of the venerable RDS in Dublin 4 did not come to pass, his prediction that it would kick-start the regeneration of the dilapidated docklands on either side of the Liffey certainly did.
"Dublin's docklands have been transformed and Harry Crosbie played a huge role in that," says Docklands Business Forum chairman Alan Robinson. "He was one of a number of people who had a great vision for a neglected part of Dublin and great public buildings like the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre encapsulate that vision."
Crosby's striking theatre – designed by Daniel Libeskind, the 'star-architect' behind New York's new World Trade Centre – is in the news this week, having been put up for sale for €20m by Nama. The jewel in the crown of Dublin's finest new urban area, Grand Canal Square, it was valued at four times that amount when Crosbie opened it to considerable acclaim in 2010.
But with many of his high-profile assets in the control of Nama, the agency has been keen to recoup the estimated €420m that the developer owes several banks.
If losing the 2,100-seater theatre – which has staged such successful productions as Swan Lake and Wicked! – is a sign of how far the Crosbie brand has fallen, the indignity of being forced by the courts to live under a set monthly income truly captures the new, sobering reality. The amount – €5,000 per month – is being strongly challenged by Crosbie, who is arguing that as a businessman with no plans to retire, he cannot be expected to conduct his affairs on €1,250 per week. It's a stance that has drawn considerable criticism, especially on social media and newspaper comment boards.
"I feel sorry for Harry Crosbie," says one of Dublin's best known showbiz entrepreneurs, "but at the end of the day, he has to take at least some responsibility for his own downfall. Like many others in the boom years, he lost the run of himself – and the banks were only too happy to facilitate – but his Point Village project always struck me as doomed to failure even if the recession had never happened."
The Point Village was Crosbie's most ambitious project by far. A veritable city-within-a-city, featuring a shopping mall, hotel, several apartment complexes and the tallest building in Ireland – the Watchtower – he hoped it would fulfil his dream of making the city's eastern extremity its greatest urban hub. Much of it has been built, but its centrepiece never happened. "The skyscraper was a vanity project," the entrepreneur says, "and was always going to struggle to get built in a country that has long resisted tall buildings. But, to give him his credit, he did leave the city with some great public-use buildings."
Besides the Point and its successor, the O2 – which was recently named among the world's best concert arenas – Crosbie's built legacy includes the award-winning Vicar Street venue, the Gibson, and the aforementioned Grand Canal Theatre. And he played a major part in the construction of the National Convention Centre, the enormous river-fronted building designed by another internationally renowned architect, Kevin Roche.
But Crosbie did not just change Dublin's skyline, he also ushered in an appreciation for an area of the city that had long been neglected. For many, the docklands was a no-go area right up to the end of the 1990s, but now it's home to thousands of apartments, the largest concentration of offices in Dublin and some of the most talked about restaurants and cafes in the city.
While the recession brought down many high-flying developers, Alan Robinson points out that Crosbie was cut from different cloth. "He cares deeply about Dublin and especially about the regeneration of the docklands and so much of his work has been about improving the fabric of the city," he says. "It wasn't so long ago when you could see the dereliction along the Liffey, but now look at the likes of the National Convention Centre and The O2 – hugely significant buildings that Harry played a major role in."
It is a view shared by the Booker Prize-winning author, John Banville. "He is an extraordinarily creative person who put his stamp on Dublin life," he says. "He should not be tarred with the brush that all developers are the same, because he is certainly different to any other developer I have met – and I'm not just saying that because he's a friend of mine.
"He was caught by the crash, as so many were, but he has left behind a formidable legacy – from the O2 to the Grand Canal Theatre and so much more besides. He made mistakes – as we all did in those mad years – but it would be a disgrace if he was made to stop. We like to jump up and down and say that we are a creative people but the truth is, there are very few true creative people in this country, and Harry is one of them."
Thanks to his court case against Nama, Crosbie says he is not at liberty to speak at present. But a speech he gave last year on the occasion of a lifetime achievement award for his contribution to the docklands saw him distancing himself from his peers. "In the public mind, we are lumped in with the people who built the ghost estates, [the people] who were amateurs, who did not know what they were doing. And that is very, very wrong."
Recalling a time when "many hundreds, sometimes thousands of men would stand in the rain waiting for work" in the docklands, Crosbie said the area had been given "a dignity and a newness" thanks to its transformation during the boom years. There were massive mistakes made, but down here – [when you look at] the social improvements – [you see] it was never about the money. It was about the improvement of the urban quality of living."
The award was given to him by the Docklands Business Forum, but Alan Robinson says Crosbie's current difficulties ensured that it wasn't bestowed on him lightly. "The Board had to think long and hard if he was an appropriate recipient, but when we weighted up his contribution to this part of Dublin, we felt it was the right thing to do."
Crosbie has long been drawn to Dublin's docklands. His father, Henry, ran a haulage business from near where the O2 stands today and the young Harry was captivated by an area that was, by turns, heavily industrialised and decayed.
It was when he travelled to the continent with his father's firm in the late 1970s that he could see how other European cities were beginning to tap into once unloved industrial zones and faded port land. He felt Dublin had such potential, but it was only with the coming of like-minded entrepreneurs and politicians such as Dermot Desmond and Charles Haughey in the late 1980s, that the docklands got a new lease of life thanks to the IFSC.
"I could never understand why Dublin stopped at Butt Bridge," Crosbie said at the time of the Point's opening, "because I always felt it was nicer down here."
Unlike many developers who changed the city for good or bad, Crosbie chose to live in the docklands – in Hannover Quay, in a converted warehouse next to where U2's studio is now located. This street, adjacent to Grand Canal Square, is now full of expensive apartments and busy restaurants, but when Crosbie first moved there with wife Rita, it was an area rife with anti-social problems.
His undoing came with the Point Village – a veritable 'city within a city' next to the O2 that would include a large shopping mall and the tallest building in Dublin, The Watchtower. When the recession kicked in and proposed anchor tenant, Dunnes Stores, refused to come on board, Crosbie was left with loans of hundreds of millions of euro that he could not repay.
Now Crosbie faces an uphill battle as Nama, which acquired his debts in 2010, has alleged that he had failed to disclose the existence of "substantial assets" to it. Although his future is uncertain, friends say he will not go down without a fight.
Some years ago, when asked what drove his business, he said: "My payback is just the satisfaction of seeing a contribution to a city that passes one basic test for me: is it better than when I was a kid starting out?"
The answer to his own question was unequivocal. "Yes."
THE HITS ...
The old venue and the 14,000-capacity version that has replaced it have been at the forefront of the biggest indoor concerts in this country for more than quarter of a century.
Bord Gais Energy Theatre
The former Grand Canal Theatre is one of the most striking looking buildings in Dublin and is considered to be a world-class auditorium.
Everyone from Bob Dylan to Neil Young to Paul Simon have played the comparatively intimate venue in the heart of Dublin's Liberties.
... AND MISSES
Crosbie acquired the old Protestant prayer hall off Merrion Square in the late 1980s and planned to convert it into a state-of-the-art 3,000-capacity theatre. However, fire regulation issues put him off and the building was subsequently converted into the Davenport Hotel.
A hugely ambitious project that came unstuck when the recession took hold, its centrepiece – the Watchtower skyscraper – smacked of hubris and the village never got of the ground.