When Clerys closed its doors for the last time in 2015, it was under controversial circumstances. It wasn't the sale of the 162-year-old retailer and its subsequent closure that was the issue, but the manner in which it was conducted: abruptly, late on a Friday evening, with no notice for the 460 people employed at the store.
Natrium, a joint venture between businesswoman Deirdre Foley's investment firm D2 Private and UK-based fund Cheyne Capital Management, had bought the department store from US group Gordon Brothers, and the chain of events involved in the change of ownership resulted in the sudden loss of 460 jobs – 130 of which were employed directly by the retailer, with the remaining 330 at concessions within the store.
Since then, speculation about the building's future has continued. Among the potential suitors touted for the site were furniture giant Ikea, Debenhams and US property fund Thor Equities. There was talk of an Apple Store, and US-founded co-working company WeWork were also rumoured to be eyeing the site.
Before the sale to Natrium, Clerys had already had a tough few years. Bought by US group Gordon Brothers from receivers in 2012, the retailer had continued to lose money, and its new owners put the company back on the market in January, 2015.
The sale to Natrium took place on June 12th; hours later, there was an application before the High Court to appoint liquidators to the company that operated Clerys, OCS Operations. Staff were told at 6pm on the Friday that the store would be closing immediately, and statutory redundancy was all that was on offer.
That left the State on the hook for redundancy payments – a bill that amounted to €2.5 million.
It marked the start of a public relations disaster for Foley and Natrium. Protests from former staff members kept the pressure on, and public scrutiny remained high. Charges were filed against Ms Foley and OCS Operations but ultimately struck out on grounds the prosecution had failed to comply with an order for disclosure.
In 2016, Dublin City Council granted permission for the development of a mixed-use scheme on the site – a boutique hotel, offices, retail space and leisure facilities. Objections were filed with An Bord Pleanála, and later withdrawn.
This week it seems the building has finally changed hands. The new owners: a three member consortium that includes Rockerfeller Group-owned Europa Capital and Oakmount, a property company of Paddy McKillen jnr and his Press-Up Entertainment partner Matt Ryan. The third member is Core Capital, a family office for private investors.
Once it is completed, the building will have a panoramic rooftop restaurant, retail units on the lower ground, ground and first floors, dining and drinking facilities on the ground level, and almost 90,000sq ft of office space.
The final asking price is reported to be about €63 million, above the €61 million at which it had been marketed. Natrium director Deirdre Foley has a 20 per cent cent stake in the project.
It’s not clear how much she stands to make from the sale but Natrium paid €29 milion for Clerys in 2015.
Things have changed since Natrium took ownership of the O’Connell Street building. Dublin’s commercial property market has become even more competitive, and crucially, the site was granted planning permission. Development was held up by objections to An Bord Pleanála by Siptu, the union that had represented the 130 workers, who had yet to meet Foley almost two years after they had been unceremoniously shown the door.
In March, 2017, Siptu announced that workers had reached a settlement with Natrium that cleared the way for the development. Details weren’t released, but the union said it involved a “substantial” goodwill payment to the 130 staff, and an agreement on future employment at the redeveloped building.
The news of the sale means the latter part of that deal may finally be delivered and opens the way for a new chapter for the famous building. Will it be enough to remove the negative image of the deal?
Siptu and the Justice for Clerys Workers Campaign said on Friday that the reported new owners of the iconic department store must adhere to an agreement with the union, local community groups and city councillors concerning the development of the site.
“The agreement includes clauses concerning the employment of former Clerys workers, local training and employment programmes as well as measures to ensure the safeguarding and development of the cultural and historical importance of the site.”
"The entire Clerys debacle has left a bitter taste in many people's mouths," said Dublin City councillor Ciaran Cuffe, while also welcoming the news of the sale, which he hopes will lead to jobs and training for locals, and start the regeneration of the street, which he said has too many vacant retail units and sites.
Among those is the former Carlton Cinema site on the opposite side of the road, which has been vacant since 1994. There were concerns that Clerys would meet the same fate, adding to the problems of the area.
But with contracts said to be signed, it looks like the building may be reopening its doors, albeit in a different form.
“Retail is the perfect use. We need more on our capital street. The proposed hotel could also be a positive,” Mr Cuffe said. “We desperately need new life on the street.”