Two years ago a batch of top US architects and designers huddled around a boardroom table in a small office on the north side of Dublin city.
The walls of the room were plastered with maps, designs, sketches and heat maps, each filled with information about the city centre. The American Institute of Architects had been tasked with delivering a new future for Dublin 1, an area facing “civic schizophrenia – a split personality”.
What they devised was a plan for a more welcoming north inner city. A plan that would not only increase footfall along the streets but also lengthen the average stay in the area bounded by Capel Street and Parnell Street, stretching down as far as the IFSC.
The institute recommended that the storage and disposal of rubbish should be taken off the streets, that the use of shutters should be ended, and that the area be populated with more communal meeting areas and green spaces. It also laid out proposals for how to brighten and improve the city’s alleyways and laneways.
It was all sparked off by a proposal from Dublin Town, a business lobby group, which has for some time believed in the potential of an area that sits just 700m from Grafton Street.
“We’re looking to create a more district feel to an area that hasn’t had a significant upgrade for the last 30 to 35 years,” Dublin Town chief executive Richard Guiney says.
“At the moment, footfall after 5pm on the north side nosedives, but a better night-time economy can be created to keep that steady throughout the day. There is absolutely an appetite for good quality cafes and restaurants and bars. If we can get the social element right it’ll also help the retail end of things.”
Dublin City Council also has its own plans for the district, including budgeting for an upgraded Wolfe Tone Square, work on which is due to start this summer. Other projects that have received backing are the pedestrianisation of Lower Mary Street and the upgrade, and potential pedestrianisation, of Liffey Street. The council has also committed to hoisting Dublin 1’s laneways into the 21st century through various means, including improved lighting and surfacing as well as encouraging business activity in them.
The efforts being made to transform Dublin 1 into a hub of economic activity is encouraging. Take boom-era developer Noel Smyth’s planned hotel on middle Abbey Street. The facade of the building will be dragged back under a canopy so that someone standing at one end of the south side of the Ha’penny Bridge can see right into Henry Street for the first time. A simple but very effective pull.
Private developers such as Smyth have identified the north inner city as a growth market. His hotel is one of six proposed in a 250m radius. Real estate investment firm Tetrarch Capital is in the process of building the 157-bed Moxy Hotel in Sackville Place while Pat Crean’s Marlet Property Group has secured permission to build a 239-room aparthotel on Abbey Street Upper.
“If you got in a time capsule and got out in 2025, you would be witnessing a very different area,” Guiney says.
The Dublin Town chief is also a big believer of above-the-shop housing, a concept once synonymous with city living. It’s true that moving people wholesale above shops would unlock thousands of units across the city but every time it’s been touted the take-up has been muted. Why? Guiney says it is due to an impasse between those trying to preserve the history of the city and those tasked with upholding fire safety standards. Widespread take-up of such a scheme could drastically improve on the mere 3,000 people living in the area at present.
Outside of hotels, Hammerson has already engaged architects for its massive development along O’Connell Street. While official plans have yet to be lodged, a mixed-use development – including high-end residential and retail – are likely to adorn the site that will centre around a Metro line stop.
Across the road is Core Capital’s Clerys. Since the former department store was sold it has sat, like a ghost of days gone by, in one of the most prominent locations in Dublin. Not for long, however. “Our view is that this is something we have to create a destination out of, it’s not going to be somewhere that someone is going to head in because they’re heading past the front door, we have to create a destination development,” says Core MD Derek McGrath.
“We will have the largest rooftop restaurant in the city, there’s not many of them, but we’ll have the largest of them regardless. It’s our view that people will walk out of their office on Dawson Street and they’ll hop on a Luas for an evening in the rooftop bar or in the market behind. That idea would have been laughed at 10 years ago.”
Core partnered with Europa Capital, a division of New York real estate firm Rockefeller Group, and Paddy McKillen Jnr’s Press Up Group on the €63m deal. The building will be a mix of retail, office, hotel, and restaurants.
McGrath’s optimism for the area is rooted in the numbers.
“We’re opportunity investors and we’re very comfortable in terms of the market and the point of where we’re at in the cycle,” he says.
“We generally tend to stay on the south side of the river, so this was a new foray for us to go into something north side of the river, outside of the likes of Dublin Landings and that sort of area.
“We had a look at the location, which would historically be considered to be a fringe location in terms of office. In terms of retail it’s not Henry Street, it’s not Grafton Street, but it is O’Connell Street – and that should be Dublin’s premier thoroughfare in theory.”
Tot up the amount of private money that will and has recently been invested in Dublin 1 and it doesn’t take long to blast past the €2bn mark.
“There’s a lot of money changing hands at the moment,” McGrath says.
“There’s new owners coming in, and they’re buying sites and buildings which need to be transformed and are looking for the next chapter of their existence. For us, that’s very encouraging because everything that’s changing hands at the moment needs a new breath of life put into it – needs to be re-energised, reinvented, and recreated.”
The Core Capital chief feels that the mood around the north inner city is far different to what it was before the crash. McGrath believes the money that’s coming in now is far more “stable”, originating from pension funds eyeing a more long-term play.
The introduction of Press Up to O’Connell Street has been described as a “game-changer” for the area. McKillen Jnr has captured a sizeable portion of Dublin’s nightlife in recent years. He’s added the Stella Cinema and Cocktail Club in Rathmines, the Devlin Hotel in Ranelagh, the Lucky Duck pub on Aungier Street, and the Grayson restaurant on Stephen’s Green, to his stable of locations.
His involvement in the project has injected further optimism to the idea of making Dublin 1 a home for nightlife. “There is a huge appetite between developers in the area, which nobody wanted to invest in for years,” says Lorcan O’Connor, MD of the Carroll’s Property Group. “There’s also the huge potential of the market that will hopefully come on stream as a result of the investment.”
O’Connor’s group has 50 sites dotted across the D1 postcode, most of which are small and likely to be joined up with others to form larger developments. The company has built up its land bank over 30 years and has decided now is the time for significant development. O’Connor is looking to tie up a number of joint ventures with companies that have a better understanding of the development game.
“I have never seen the appetite that we’ve seen for the Dublin 1 area,” O’Connor says. “We missed the last Celtic Tiger, but definitely at this stage we’re inundated with people looking for investment opportunities. A lot more international investors are looking at Henry Street as one of the busiest shopping streets. They’re looking, in particular, at the north side.”
For years O’Connell Street has been tipped as offering immense potential, often seen as a street that should be much more than it is. Now, a tram runs along it, making it more accessible than ever and soon, if plans go ahead, an underground Metro.
The broad thoroughfare, which is steeped in the country’s history, may finally be on the cusp of achieving that potential.
THREE SCHEMES TO WATCH
1: Once due to be the jewel in the crown of Joe O’Reilly’s Chartered Land portfolio, the six-acre site was down to be an ambitious mixed-used scheme before the banking crisis hit. Now, new owners Hammerson have employed architects to devise a new vision.
2: Boom-era developer Noel Smyth has been given the go-ahead to build a €55m hotel on Middle Abbey Street in the city centre. Construction has already begun on the 310-bed development, which is set to be finished within 18 months.
3: Private equity group Tetrarch is behind the construction of the boutique Moxy Hotel, which will run on Sackville Street. The 158-bed hotel received planning permission in 2016. A new facade, as well as offices in the building will give the street a new lease of life.
Source: Sunday Indo Business, Michael Cogley