Traders in Dublin city centre are calling for “urgent” intervention from planners to stop the decline of the core shopping district on the northside of the river Liffey, as it is estimated that almost one in three shops could lie empty on Henry Street when the retail sector reopens fully next month.
Dublin Town, which represents local businesses, met with officials from Dublin City Council on Monday to discuss plans to revive the city as the pandemic recedes. Following the meeting with the council's regeneration task force, Dublin Town chief executive Richard Guiney emailed senior council official Cóilín O'Reilly to warn "the survival of the city's northern commercial core is now a major doubt".
Mr Guiney estimates the vacancy rate on Henry Street, traditionally one of the prime retail areas in the country, will be 31 per cent when shops reopen. The street, which runs west from O'Connell Street, was home to several UK retailers that have closed in recent times, such as Debenhams and Oasis. Swedish multinational H&M also recently announced the closure of its nearby outlet.
Dublin Town tracks footfall levels at various strategic points across the city. It says the number of people in the city centre each day is now less than a third of 2019 levels. Mr Guiney said that even if a large cohort of office workers were to return to the city and if shops were to reopen, he did not expect footfall to recover much beyond 70 per cent on 2019 levels if international tourism were to remain restricted.
“Henry Street was always going to be vulnerable to the trends exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Mr Guiney. “It has a high concentration of the big retail brands that are likely to be vulnerable to the shift to online shopping. A vacancy rate of more than 30 per cent is a real worry.”
The traders’ group is critical of Henry Street’s designation by the council as a Category 1 prime retail district, which means that planning permission for most cultural, hospitality or leisure activities is difficult to obtain, with the area effectively zoned mainly for shops and associated services.
Mr Guiney argues that the categorisation is “obsolete”, given the difficulties being experienced in retail. He urged the council to open up Henry Street to a wider range of tourism and entertainment uses.
“Even before the pandemic, footfall in that part of town was gone by 7pm or 8pm,” he said. The retail areas on the southside, such as Grafton Street, are adjacent to more hospitality and entertainment venues and tended to stay busy until much later in the evening, he said.
“We need more restaurants and cafes and entertainment on Henry Street,” he said.
Mr Guiney said he was aware of a potentially major interactive tourism-themed investment for the Henry Street area that “wouldn’t get planning” under current rules.
Dublin Town has also raised concerns over “perceptions of safety” in the city centre, and he urged the authorities to find better solutions for homeless people and those with addiction issues, as “there should never be tents pitched on city streets”.
Dublin Town has drafted a five-point plan for the regeneration of the city, based around shoring up the local traders, public transport, improving public spaces, marketing the area and “managing the return to normality”. He also called on businesses to be facilitated to play a greater role in the regeneration, as “many of the decisions required are commercial in nature”.
“The future of the city is somewhat in the balance, unfortunately,” he said.