News Analysis: UCD’s Most Expensive Car Park

Following on from our lead story this issue, Billy Vaughan delves into why UCD agreed to a landswap and why nothing has been built on it since 2008. [br]AT the time, it was hailed as the perfect solution to UCD’s accommodation problem and its cash flow crisis. It seemed like a no brainer. UCD would get rid of its old greenhouses at Thornfield, and in exchange, receive €15m in cash, and a prime three acres for expansion of Belgrove. But today, all that stands on the land that UCD received is a car park. Where did it all go wrong?The documents that the Observer received only give a small glimpse into the many manoeuvres that surrounded the 2007 deal. There were multiple bidders, which included Denis O’Brien, UCD, student accommodation operators, and others. We do not know the details of each bidder, or indeed how much they all offered for the Roebuck land. As a result we cannot easily ascertain whether UCD’s €10.5m bid for the land would have succeeded had O’ Brien not made his offer.It is very likely that Denis O’ Brien had no real intention of ever using the Roebuck land when he bought it, as it is only accessible from UCD. It was probably always meant as leverage to secure the prime Thornfield land from UCD. Even before he had formally bought the land, UCD received correspondence from his office offering the swap. It seems that UCD was just a pawn in the grand scheme to secure Thornfield, the development of which is now set to make O’ Brien millions.It is ironic to note that just a couple of years later, the new Science building would be named in recognition of his generous financial contribution to that project. However, this is not a story of O’Brien’s gain; he is just a businessman out to make as much profit as possible. On the contrary, this is very much a story of UCD’s loss.The much-vaunted €15m that was included ended up being severely depleted by contract obligations that came out of UCD’s pocket. The fact that, throughout the documents, there is no final figure for these costs incurred (it is variously quoted as €4m, €5m & €6.5m in the documents) is scandalous in itself, and illustrates the unusually ad hoc and casual attitude that was taken to the deal.However, the real mystery at the heart of this story is why the land has been idle, when it was deemed suitable for development by no less than 3 external advisor companies involved in the deal. At the time the benefits of building on the Roebuck site were trumpeted endlessly. It is very likely that if UCD had known what had become of it now, the deal would not have taken place, potentially saving millions in the long run.There appears to be three scenarios that led to this fiasco: either UCD thought that the Roebuck land was suitable because the three auditors were incorrect in the professional advice that they gave; UCD can actually build on the land now and choose not to; or that UCD somehow knew that the land was unsuitable, but went through with the deal anyway. All of these scenarios suggest either incompetence or corruption.The irony rings even louder given UCD’s current housing crisis, where every square inch of campus is now seen as potential space for accommodation development. Page 29 of the most recent Campus Development Plan (2016-2026), shows a veritable forest of planned accommodation blocks in the green spaces between the Sutherland Law School and Roebuck Castle. No open space is safe from the desperate eye of the campus development authorities; except, it seems, the one parcel of land that was specifically acquired for the development of student accommodation.It is important to remember here also that not only was there a long-term potential financial loss, but the opportunity cost of giving away the Thornfield land was devastating. If the deal had not gone through, there could very well now be (revenue generating) student apartments on the Thornfield block. The fact that O’ Brien’s proposed development is fairly high-density shows that the council was favourable towards projects of that kind.There are also notes in University documents and those of external contractors that claim the council would have been favourable to new student accommodation built in locations close to third-level institutions. This was in 2008, before the nation-wide accommodation crisis hit.If the car park remains, which seems likely, then UCD gave away prime N11 real estate, and were given a glorified back garden. The key element here is Grant Thornton’s cost benefit analysis of both sites, which came down overwhelmingly against Thornfield and for Roebuck. With the benefit of hindsight, this recommendation seems farcical, and ought to be looked into further.While at this early stage we do not know the reasons why, or how this strange state of affairs has come to pass, the very fact that there has been no action taken where construction was not only planned, but publically promoted, suggests that there is much more than meets the eye.