Life after Clerys: how will Dublin’s premier street survive its closure?

The loss of the store is a blow to O’Connell Street, but things have been improving

 

There is no mistaking how upbeat Jill Tyrrell is about business as she talks about how Murray’s Bar, at the north end of Dublin’s O’Connell Street, has been faring in recent times.

It’s late lunchtime on a sunny day in the middle of the week, and the bar is fairly crowded with people eating hot meals and sitting over beers, while traditional Irish music plays over the music system. The wallpaper and the table covers are patterned with images of old Dublin, though the preponderance of dark wood and mirrored glass gives the interior the feel of an “Irish bar” in the US, rather than in Ireland’s capital.

“We’re busy,” she says. “Footfall on the street and tourism are both important for us, and both are on the up. We’ve just had an amazing weekend with the Scottish football fans.”

Tyrrell acts as a consultant manager to the Murray group and was involved in the redesign of the O’Connell Street bar four years ago, down to the selection of the wallpaper.

Out the back is a large “beer garden” that is formed by the rear of the buildings on Cathal Brugha Street and Parnell Street, where the group owns, respectively, the Living Room sports bar, and Fibber Magee’s, both of which back onto the open space. There are lots of large screens for watching soccer matches and even an area with tiered seating.

Tyrrell, who is a member of a business group that meets regularly with local Garda and council representatives, says O’Connell Street has improved over the past four years. Back then, you might not feel safe on the street, but that is not so now, she says, giving credit to the Garda for “moving on to somewhere else” the type of people who were hanging around near the junction with Abbey Street and making others feel uncomfortable.

“I think when they introduce the Luas it will be fantastic,” she says.

The hoarding outside Findlater House, on the corner of Cathal Brugha Street, is another reason for her to feel optimistic. The former office block is undergoing a €13.8 million transformation into a 200-room hotel with ground floor café, that is due to open around the end of this year. Tyrrell is hopeful this will mean even more business for the bar.

Chartered Land site

The building, which was bought in 2005 for €30million-plus by Garrett Kelleher’s Shelbourne Developments, with finance from Anglo Irish Bank, was sold by the National Asset Management Agency for slightly more than €6 million in 2013 to a UK company owned by Jalaluddin Kajani and his family. Kajani, originally from Pakistan, is an Irish citizen.

 

When you stand outside Murray’s Bar and look across the road, there’s a gaping hole in the streetscape on the south end of the corner AIB building. Beside that is the long disaster that is the Joe O’Reilly/Chartered Land site that has been holding back O’Connell Street since the early 2000s. The site stretches down as far as the uninspiring Dublin Bus offices and includes the former Carlton Cinema and Dublin County Council buildings (see panel below).

That site apart, however, there are not that many vacant buildings on what many refer to as Dublin’s premier street. There’s an empty former bank building on the west side beyond the Dublin Bus offices, and there are two or three empty shops on the east side of O’Connell Street, but overall you’d have to say it is not faring too badly given the recession Ireland is just emerging from.

The stretch of the street from the GPO to Clarks shoe shop on the Abbey Street corner is probably the most successful stretch in terms of retail, especially now in the absence of Clerys.

Eason appears to be committed to its presence on the street. There has been “substantial investment in the O’Connell Street store in recent years, which has seen new retail concepts and enhancements added”, says Conor Whelan, managing director of Eason and chairman of Retail Ireland. “We’ll be undertaking further investment in enhancing the store this year in line with its standing as our largest flagship store.”

Challenges

On the retail environment generally, however, Whelan says the Eason outlets in shopping centres are performing better than the high street ones.

 

“Shoppers are migrating away from city and town centres. This reflects the challenges of high street retailing in general and Dublin city centre has no doubt been affected by a range of factors including protests, disruption from Luas works and a general deterioration in the city centre shopping environment.

“We believe both Government and local authorities can do more to support city and town centres.”

The street is the subject of both architectural conservation area and special planning control (SPC) designations, with the latter having been introduced in September 2001, in part due to outrage at the arrival of the Ann Summers lingerie outlet.

The six-year SPC designation will be up for its second renewal this September, when proposals will be brought to the city’s councillors, according to Jim Keogan, assistant chief executive for planning (and other matters) with the council.

The SPC seeks to promote an appropriate mix of uses for the street and the development of derelict or underused sites.

“Businesses such as Clerys department store, the Gresham Hotel and Eason & Son are now an essential part of the street’s character and continue to attract people into the area and contribute to the social, cultural, economic and architectural character of the street,” reads a council document on the designation, drafted a few years ago.

new map

Future retail use

“The closure of Clerys is obviously a disappointment,” says Keogan, “but we would hope that the retail use of the building will continue. We don’t know of any particular plan for the building but we would hope that its future retail use would be secured.”

 

The council document says it is policy to encourage existing or past use of a building where the last use was considered to be an intrinsic aspect of the special social, cultural and/or artistic interest of a premises. What relevance, if any, this has for the Deirdre Foley/Cheyne Capital plans for the Clerys building is not clear.

The SPC’s role for the street, according to Keogan, is not so much setting out a vision as controlling planning and arresting what was seen 20 years ago as a fall in standards.

The objective was to protect the street from becoming overly dominated by takeaway food outlets, adult shops and gaming arcades.

“Fifteen years ago the threat was from low-end retail, and we have been successful in arresting that,” he says.

Uses against which planning may be refused, at ground floor level, according to the document, include financial and professional services, general offices, internet cafes, call centres, bookmakers, takeaways, amusement arcades, convenience stores, ATM lobbies and car rental and financial services businesses.

The council has ploughed a lot of money into the “public realm” on O’Connell Street, widening the footpaths and the median area and upgrading the paving. The Luas cross-city line, which will run up O’Connell Street and down Marlborough Street, will improve access to what is already a hugely accessible street. The city library is to be moved from the Ilac Centre to the old Coláiste Mhuire building on the north side of Parnell Square, and there are plans for more “public realm” improvements on the side streets that connect O’Connell Street to Marlboro Street – currently amongst the grimmest streets in the city centre.

O’Connell Street and its environs is a challenging area, says Keogan, but there are a lot of pluses and reasons to be optimistic.

Property speculation, bankruptcies, and two prolonged recessions have not been kind to O’Connell Street, says Green Party councillor and long-time city planning activist Ciarán Cuffe. “But the new Luas line has the potential to be a very positive part of the street’s revival in terms of increasing footfall.”

There has been a shift in Dublin towards such out-of-city locations as Blanchardstown and Clondalkin, and there is a need for the city centre to fight back.

“The closing of Clerys is a real blow to the street but it can and will fight back,” Cuffe says. He says the shop was busy and believes “we are not getting a clear picture of the trading performance of Clerys”.

“Given its architecture and status and its role as the birthplace of the nation, O’Connell Street has a strong story to tell and maybe we should be singing its praises more often.”

There are quite a few takeaway outlets and gaming businesses on the street, with the short stretch from Abbey Street to the Liffey on the west side having a Supermac’s, a McDonald’s, and a Burger King.

Nightlife

Jarlath O’Dwyer, marketing manager with the Supermac’s group, says the after-midnight weekend trade has dropped significantly in recent years. “The nightlife has moved to the other side of the river at the weekends. But the street is still a busy, dynamic street.”

 

One of the major changes over recent decades has been the construction of a large number of apartments in the area between the quays and Parnell Street, and Supermac’s targets the young people living in many of these with leafletting and other advertising initiatives.

“I don’t think there are too many takeaway outlets on O’Connell Street,” O’Dwyer says. He appears defensive when asked about signage. “We are pleased with our signage. It’s in line with our outlets elsewhere and the building it’s on.”

The closure of Clerys, he says, is “very disappointing”.

North Dublin city councillor Janice Boylan, of Sinn Féin, is full of praise for how the Garda and the council work with local business to promote the street. She would like to see the council make it easier for cafes and restaurants to have seating outside during the summer months.

The closure of Clerys, she says, is an “absolute disaster and really bad for the city, and the treatment of the staff was terrible”. But Clerys apart, there have been very few closures on the street in the past number of years, she says.


Building for the future: Redevelopment of Carlton Cinema site is on hold but other businesses are thriving

The massive Joe O’Reilly/Chartered Land site that stretches from near the top of the west side of O’Connell Street to the Dublin Bus Offices close to Henry Street is probably the biggest problem facing the capital’s most famous street.

The site, which O’Reilly began assembling as far back as 2003, runs back to Moore Street and stretches over to Henry Street. The developer has planning permission for a 53,864sq m, retail-led development. The project was delayed by the planning process, legal challenges and the economic collapse; the loans associated with the site are now with the National Asset Management Agency. The existing planning permission lasts until March 2017.

Green Party councillor Ciarán Cuffe says he would like to see a new plan drawn up for the site, which would have a greater residential element and not be as tall. The site has been empty for “a generation” and the plans for it need to be “reconfigured”, he says.

During the Celtic Tiger, Cuffe says, the council was “egging on the developers to go higher and higher”, but a more sensitive approach now exists.

Jim Keogan of Dublin City Council says the council believes there is a need for the development to take place to consolidate the retail activity of the northeast area of the city and the city as a whole.

“The city needs to provide retail choice that is equal in quality and diversity to what exists in the out-of-town centres, and it is important that these sites are developed.”

What exactly Nama and/or Joe O’Reilly plan for the site is not clear. The project is “on hold at the moment”, according to one source.

Meanwhile, a number of businesses are operating on short leases in the buildings on the site.

Paul Wang, manager of the Ten Thousand World Buffet restaurant in the old Dublin County Council building, says the business has been there for nearly two years and is doing “okay”. The clientele is half passing trade, half returning customers, with about 30 per cent Irish and the rest European tourists, he says. Lunch costs €9.99 and dinner €12.99.

Nora Lin, from the Green Island shop next door, sells meat and fish and general groceries aimed at the Asian community and has a three-year lease. Using a member of staff to translate for her, she says business is “okay, not that good” and that although there are lots of people passing on the streets outside, “they are mostly there for the buses, not for the shopping”.

There’s a Garda station next door that is dedicated to monitoring the CCTV cameras trained on O’Connell Street and the surrounding area. But this doesn’t stop drug addicts coming in, taking things and running away.

“They give us trouble. It’s very annoying.” Will she stay when her lease is up? “We’ll see.”

Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium and the 4D theatre beside it in the old Carlton Cinema building are empty when visited by The Irish Times. The upstairs pool room is entirely empty, while the 4D theatre has only recently resumed Monday opening having been on restricted opening for the winter.

Business was good up until about 2010, says a member of staff, but then it fell dramatically and has not picked up since.

Business is booming in Flanagans Restaurant, says manager Karl Ryan, who first started working with the business 16 years ago. The restaurant building is part of the Chartered Land site and is subject to a three-year lease. Ryan and some new investors were instrumental in keeping the old and well-known restaurant open when closure threatened last year.

“We fought hard for it,” says the former chef. “There’s 42 staff and business is flying, absolutely flying. It’s bombing along.”

The menu is steaks, burgers, pizza, Irish stew and coddle, and about 60 per cent of the customers are tourists.

“You can’t lose these types of places from O’Connell Street. There are too many fast food places.”

Ryan is full of praise for the work the Garda has done for the street in recent times, though he thinks tourists would like to see even more visibility. “It’s actually flying, O’Connell Street,” he says.