Dublin is starting out on a transformation that will give the city centre the prominence it deserves. Ben Cooper profiles the two big schemes set to light up the Irish capital.

When in years to come Dubliners look back on 2008, they will say it was a turning point.
In April, plans were finally submitted for one of the biggest new schemes the city centre has seen for decades and, less than a month ago, another heavyweight set of plans was given the nod. Once this wave of projects is complete – by about 2013 – the city will look like a different place, with a substantially redeveloped centre and arrival of much-needed new retail space.

While Dublin is Ireland’s dominant force in terms of economy, population and retail offering, there is something of a civil war being waged between the city centre and its out-of-town offering. An army of retailers has set up camp on the margins of the city in the wealth of retail space that has sprung up in recent years, while the centre of the city has been starved of essential supply.

But now the city centre is mounting a comeback. Echoing the shift towards urban regeneration that has helped transform UK cities like Liverpool and Belfast, Dublin is vying to bring retailers back to the centre. One of the key ways it will do this, other than providing a new plush setting for shopping, is to bring stores of a more inviting size to retailers that have previously been put off by the lack of space available.
“When retailers came over to look at Dublin, one of the criticisms they had was that there wasn’t the type of space they wanted,” says CBRE Ireland director Cormac Kennedy. “If you look at some of the retailers like LK Bennett and Massimo Dutti that have gone into the out-of-town centres such as Dundrum, they’re not generally represented in the city centre.

“The two big centres coming to Dublin will do a lot to boost the city centre’s northside retail mix. There hasn’t been any significant retail development in the city for some time.”

As of next year, Dublin will have a background noise of buzzing, banging and the rumbling of trucks. The first project – Northern Quarter – has been granted planning consent in the past month and, following that, assuming all goes well in the planning stage, Dublin Central will arrive shortly after. Between them, they will add 3.2 million sq ft (294,495 sq m) of mixed-use space to Dublin city centre.

Northern Quarter, which Centros will develop on behalf of owner Arnotts, the Dublin department store giant, will be a momentous arrival to the city centre. Covering more than 1.5 million sq ft (139,350 sq m), it will bring an unprecedented amount of new retail space.

Arnotts, which will occupy a 300,000 sq ft (27,870 sq m) store anchoring Northern Quarter, is Dublin through and through. Established on the capital’s prestigious Henry Street in 1847, it is one of the city’s institutions. Arnotts is demolishing its home of 160 years to make space for the new scheme to be built on the same site.

“There’s a hunger for good quality retail in Dublin,” says Arnotts chief executive David Riddiford. “If you look at the city centre as a whole, there are a relatively small number of department stores to service the population. Dublin deserves more quality retailers.”

Northern Quarter will bring Arnotts, and Dublin, into the 21st century. Like other members of the new generation of schemes that it follows, it is not just going to add to the retail offering; the city itself will grow as a result. For example, once Northern Quarter is complete, Dublin will have a new square, a new street, a six-storey department store, almost 50 new stores, a further 17 bars and a wave of new restaurants.

Like all big schemes, Northern Quarter has had its problems. The date for getting on site – likely to be by the middle of next year – is later than Arnotts had hoped for originally. The complexities of the Irish planning system – which features several hurdles where a scheme can fall down, often at the end – has meant the process has been long and drawn out. Arnotts was forced to revise its original blueprints after a ruling by An Bord Pleanála, the Planning Appeals Board, that the proposed 13-storey tower block that would have housed the scheme’s residential element was out of place with the rest of the Dublin skyline, and a more modest seven storeys was submitted instead.

But now that it has been given the green light, work will begin in earnest. Arnotts expects to have the job done by 2012; the next job is getting the retailers in. The types of retailers coming in will reflect the guiding principles of the project, according to Riddiford. The brief, he says, is to help show off Dublin and Ireland to the rest of Europe and beyond.

“We need to be aiming to get the best of the world,” says Riddiford. “And we need to showcase the best of Ireland to the world. Dublin is the third most-visited short-haul destination in the world after London and Paris.”

Riddiford will be aiming to attract brands that are not yet in Ireland and the mix, he says, will be aspirational and fashion-focused, but not luxury.

Next in line

Coming up behind Northern Quarter is Chartered Land’s Dublin Central scheme. Having submitted the plans in April, Chartered Land is going through some of the same complications that Arnotts experienced. It is in the process of gathering some more information after a request from the council, but is hopeful of reaching a successful verdict soon.

Complicating the process even further was the fact that no compulsory purchase order was issued, so Chartered Land has had to painstakingly acquire every individual building on site. But the developer now seems to be reaching the finishing line for the pre-construction stage.
Dublin Central will be even bigger than Northern Quarter. Covering 1.7 million sq ft (157,930 sq m), the 1.25 billion (£985.5 million) project will bring in 109 stores on top of 108 apartments and 17 restaurants. Like Northern Quarter, it will change the landscape of the city, adding two public streets and three squares.

Also in the same vein as the other new entrant, the scheme will be dominated by a major department store, most likely John Lewis’s first in Ireland. The development will occupy a 5.5 acre (2.2 ha) site on the city centre’s prestigious Henry Street, completing the double whammy of new shopping centre developments that will have transformed the Irish capital by the time 2013 is out.

Of course, it can’t be ignored that the worldwide economic picture is rockier than it has been for a long time and Ireland is no exception. With tales of developers’ woes widespread and projects being put on hold left, right and centre, the latest wave of schemes in Ireland have their work cut out for them. Consumers are reining in their spending and retailers are responding with a more cautious approach to all aspects of their business, not least their property plans.

Footfall and consumer spending for the first quarter of this year were unsurprisingly down, according to Crest Retail Excellence Ireland and the Central Statistics Office. Against this backdrop, developers are questioning whether or not to proceed with schemes, or at least whether or not they should be deferred, at least. But this has not fazed the developers of Northern Quarter and Dublin Central.

And, while it’s true that Irish retailers are exercising the same caution that most have shown, there is still plenty of movement there. Big names in Irish food retail like Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Supervalu and Centra are still on the march, according to Kennedy – and rightly so, given that Ireland has more potential than most European countries. The population, which is growing faster than almost any other country’s, is set to increase by 1 million in the next 25 years. Considering this represents a quarter of the present population, this is quite a staggering figure.

And, the two big developments aside, there is plenty of other development activity on the cards in Dublin. In spring next year, Chartered Land is preparing to open its 108,000 sq ft (10,035 sq m) South King Street scheme in the sought-after Grafton Street area of the city. The project will bring in Zara, H&M and Warehouse. Meanwhile, Crosbie is at the early stages of its£528 million Point Village complex, bringing a further 300,000 sq ft (27,870 sq m) of retail space to the capital, including a Dunnes anchor store.

Dublin’s city centre is not suffering any more than any other retail market, and with a long-overdue era of urban development beckoning and a young, affluent population that is growing faster than most countries in the world, Ireland is still in good shape to ride out the downturn. And while, in the retail stakes, the past decade has belonged to Dublin’s out-of-town centres, the city centre is about to get its turn back in the limelight.