“It’s probably the best view of the city,” says Brian Moran. The senior managing director in Ireland of property investment group Hines is on the rooftop terrace on the 10th storey of Central Plaza, the former Central Bank headquarters on Dame Street.
It’s a wet and blustery day but the uninterrupted view on all four sides across Dublin city is stunning and should prove to be a major draw once the restaurant that will operate from inside the impressive glazed roof opens in the months ahead.
Hines, which is based in Houston, Texas, and Hong Kong-based property investment firm Peterson Group acquired the distinctive Sam Stephenson-designed building and adjoining properties on College Green for a reported €67 million in 2017.
They have spent the intervening period plotting a new future for the campus to provide a mix of offices, retail and food and beverage spaces. The buildings have been stripped back to their bare bones and carefully modernised to appeal to office workers, shoppers and diners.
After earlier delays, Central Plaza was due to open last year but Covid lockdown restrictions, and issues with the supply of microchips and other materials pushed it back another 12 months.
“We would have been finished a year ago. That’s a year of lost revenue and extra overhead,” Moran says. That equates to between €8 million and €10 million in extra costs, he adds, with lost revenue on top of that.
The mix in the newly refurbished complex comprises offices (60 per cent), food and beverage (25 per cent) and retail (15 per cent). According to Moran, it is 88 per cent let at the minute, with a few key units still to be decided.
Number 2 Central Plaza, at ground floor level on Dame Street, has been renovated to provide two large retail units but Moran has held them back for now. “Large retail units have not been flavour of the month [post-pandemic]. This has been held back until we open up the whole place.
“We’ve had all sorts of offers but nothing that really excites us about the type of use. It could be a really strong retailer, or a food and beverage offering. When this opens up, someone might walk by and say ‘let’s do this’. We didn’t want to put someone in there that didn’t complement the scheme.”
A number of leading brands have already signed on the dotted line, including burger group BuJo, Gino’s Gelato and a new entrant to the Irish market Las Iguanas. Popular doughnut maker Krispy Kreme’s unit is quickly taking shape as we walk around the complex.
Some of the long sweep of steps that led into the former Central Bank head office have been removed with steps now leading below street level to a sunken plaza, where you will be able to dine or have a drink. A lift will take diners to the rooftop restaurant, where three separate food concepts are being planned by its Dubai-based operator Zafar Shah.
Step out of the lift and you will be greeted by a host with a bar area to relax in before dinner. Head up a couple of steps and you’re on to the outdoor terrace and its spectacular views on all four sides. Back inside, customers will head up another few steps to dine. The elevation of the diningroom means that those inside will not have their view interrupted by people walking around the terrace to take in the views.
For now, the space remains a concrete and steel shell, awaiting fit out. Fire safety rules mean that a maximum of 500 people will be allowed into the near 15,500 sq ft (1,600 sq m) rooftop area at any one time. “Our feeling is that this experience will become a big part of a visit to Dublin for people,” Moran says.
Given its spectacular location, was residential considered for this part of the building? Hines is involved in residential projects in other parts of the city. Moran says the reality is that commercial and food and beverage “would probably give you double the rent” of residential for the space.
“This is more a commercial building and you’d be into major fire-code issues. Also, this is a unique space and it would be a shame given its height in the city centre not to allow the public up here and make it an attraction and something special for the city. From the get-go that was our plan,” he says.
We Work, the global co-working company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, has taken seven floors of office space at One Central Plaza (what we knew as the Central Bank headquarters building), that it will sublet to tenants. It was signed up before the pandemic and before hybrid working became established here. In spite of the working-from-home trend, Moran is confident about the future of the office and believes We Work’s business model is ideal for the site.
“At the end of the day, the office is a collaboration place and a space for mentoring people. A location like this works phenomenally well because of the local communities and the transportation links. We could have leased the space I’d say about three times over in terms of demand for office space of this quality in this location. The idea of flex workspace is now going to be part of the portfolio going forward for corporates.”
Moran says We Work is “eager to get in here and start fitting out” later this month. “It’s my feeling that they’ll have their tenants in here by early new year,” he says.
According to Moran, the construction costs have run to about €100 million, when you factor in professional fees and other charges. He expects Hines to hold it in its portfolio to the point of “stabilisation”, when it is fully let and functioning. This is probably a year away. “Get the place stabilised and then it’s for sale,” he says. “The plan was always to sell it.”
Due to Covid delays and other issues, Moran suggests that Central Plaza might ultimately only wash its face in terms of a return for its owners.
“We would like a value-added return. I think being honest we won’t achieve everything we set out to do because of Covid complications. Ourselves and Peterson are two big firms so we’re not going to lose our life over this not being a stellar performance in our portfolio. But from our perspective the main thing is to do it right, set a quality standard, don’t shrink on any of the details.
“I genuinely believe that if we get the footfall in, get the right retailers ... in the long term this investment will make sense for the next owner. We’re big enough to absorb the speed bumps. The main thing now is to finish it right, make it a perfect building and then move on to the next one and leave a legacy behind us.”