Silicon Docks: Where the streets have no people

Google walking away from Sorting Office deal a blow for tech and commercial hub ravaged by the pandemic

The Sorting Office scheme in Dublin’s ‘Silicon Docks’ where Google abandoned plans to rent the offices. Photograph:  Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

The Sorting Office scheme in Dublin’s ‘Silicon Docks’ where Google abandoned plans to rent the offices. Photograph: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

 

On the waterside at Hanover Quay in Dublin, surrounded by the mountains of glass and steel of the area informally known as Silicon Docks, U2’s dilapidated old recording studio remains an iconic pilgrimage site for the band’s fans.

They still come from everywhere to scrawl messages to the group on its crumbling walls. “U2, your music is like a light in the dark. You inspire me,” writes Emma from Australia. Nearby, an anonymous Italian wit has added: “Bono, sono il tuo papá!!” (Bono, I am your dad!!)

The band and property developer Paddy McKillen have planning permission for a visitor centre on the site, which it is hoped will attract 390,000 visitors annually. What local businesses would not give for a fraction of those visitors now; the area lies eerily quiet at 5.30pm on a Tuesday evening.

An illustration of the plans from 2018 for the U2 visitor centre on the docks.
An illustration of the plans from 2018 for the U2 visitor centre on the docks.

With offices in the area shuttered and the staff of tech giants, such as Google and Facebook, due to work from home until deep into 2021, it is only a slight exaggeration to say the coronavirus pandemic has turned Silicon Docks into the place Where The Streets Have No People.

There are a handful dotted around but at this time of day, usually, it would be teeming. More than 40,000 office workers are employed in the environs of Silicon Docks. Almost all are absent from work and the council’s plan to double the local workforce in coming years is under threat. This is having a huge knock-on effect on the eco-system of local businesses, which now rely on residents alone.

Perhaps more than anywhere else in Dublin city, the quarter has temporarily lost its vim to the virus. That, and the Government’s edict for people to work from home alongside its exhortations not to use public transport, which has killed commuting into the city.

U2’s old friend, developer Harry Crosbie, still lives next door to the recording studio site. The locality has been a magnet for big developers for years but Crosbie, more than anyone, was the area’s commercial pioneer. The Point Theatre developer scoffs at the notion that the docklands could be laid low for long.

“The people around here are entrepreneurial, can-do people. They have conquered problems all through time. I am absolutely confident they will conquer this one. Once Covid is over, the docklands will come roaring back. Different perhaps, but stronger than ever,” he says. He was always ebullient.

Google, which employs close to 8,000 people in the surrounding area, sparked concern last week when it pulled out of talks to rent space for close to 2,000 more at the almost-complete Sorting Office development.

The Marlet group scheme lies a couple of hundred yards to the west of Hanover Quay, directly across the road from its rival, Facebook’s headquarters at the bottom of Misery Hill. The street’s name has never seemed so apt, given the woe that now betides Ireland’s economy.

Google was quick this week to reaffirm its commitment to Dublin and to Ireland. But news of its pullback from the Sorting Office deal seems like a portent for the difficult period ahead.

People on their balconies in Grand Canal Dock. Photograph: Tom Honan
People on their balconies in Grand Canal Dock. Photograph: Tom Honan

Strolling away from the Sorting Office and back up Misery Hill into Grand Canal Square, the plaza is dominated by the sprawling Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, opened by Crosbie a decade ago. On Tuesday at what is meant to be rush hour, the 2,100-seat venue is as dark as a cave, shut for the foreseeable.

The plaza isn’t totally deserted, but the atmosphere is muted. A few cyclists traverse the square. Couples stroll hand-in-hand by the water, taking in the still evening air through their face masks.

Apart from two men sitting outside the Marker hotel holding a business meeting, nobody around is wearing formal office clothes. The local tech workers at Google, Facebook, Airbnb and Linkedin would mostly eschew formal attire anyway. But few of them appear to be around, either, as the work-from-home revolution keeps the economy ticking over, while it ravages commercial life.

The normally wildly popular Il Valentino cafe at the corner of Grand Canal quay is closing for the day, with just two tables outside. The Fresh supermarket is empty.

Signs of life

A few doors up, signs cover the window of a large vacant unit: “Nutbutter #healthy #flexitarian Coming here in Q2 2020.” The Nutbutter restaurant’s scheduled move up from Forbes Street, where it closed last year, has clearly been delayed, although work is ongoing.

At the other end of the concourse, the sprawling Café Bar H shows signs of life. Normally, it would be filled with workers from the offices nearby, which include HSBC bank, consultants Accenture and William Fry solicitors, having after dinner drinks or meals. Nobody was coming in or out of the adjacent offices.

At the other corner of the plaza, the old HQ gastrobar is completely shuttered. British pub group, JD Wetherspoon, bought the site last year and plans to amalgamate it with the old Nutbutter site to create a new venue. That plan appears to be on ice for the moment.

Strolling east along Hanover Quay past the U2 site again, the food and drink outlets at street level below the apartments are mostly shut as I pass. Herbstreet doesn’t open on Mondays or Tuesdays. Boojum burrito bar is open and modestly busy, outside at least. But the large Milano restaurant next door, which is supposed to be open until 10pm, is closed.

The only people in Spar are the staff wearing visors. A few doors down, Paddy McKillen jnr’s Press Up group opened its 47th outlet, casual restaurant MacKenzies, just before last Christmas. Since the virus hit, it no longer opens from Monday to Wednesday.

Pause Café is shut for the day by the time of this visit though it would have been open earlier. A handwritten note on the door directs customers to either the eat-in “line” or the takeaway “line”. The Americanism would make sense to the workers of the nearby Californian giant Facebook, if any were here.

Airbnb’s office further down the quay is also deserted. The holiday accommodation platform has been hammered by travel restrictions brought in to fight the pandemic, and it is cutting a quarter of its global workforce.

Close to 1,000 people were working at Airbnb in Dublin until the virus swept in. The company is still forging ahead with its stock market listing, according to filings in recent weeks, so its Dublin base will survive any office cull: not least for the HQ tax advantages so beloved of US investors.

Towards the Liffey river side, recruitment firm Indeed’s huge offices are deathly, as is the Capital Dock tower beside it. A second docklands Fresh supermarket lies on the ground floor – the chain has taken a big bet on the area. When the virus hit, Noel Smith’s grocery group quickly scaled up its online operation.

Ploughing ahead

The offices of JP Morgan office, State Street and the powerhouse corporate law firm, Matheson, are as quiet as cathedrals – these jobs are easily done from home. Across the river on the north docklands quays, work is ploughing ahead on Johnny Ronan’s mixed-use Waterfront development.

Last week, it emerged he wants to more than double the number of apartments to 1,000 in two 40-plus storey towers. Ronan remains confident.

A few hundred yards up the river, the gold-clad Central Bank of Ireland headquarters is almost totally empty – Government agencies have been working from home since the pandemic began. Ronan’s Salesforce tower next door looks to be nearing completion, but when will its tenant’s staff move in?

In between the riverfront and the canal basin, there lies block after block of apartments and secondary businesses, such as dentists and bank branches, serving the local community of mostly high-earning, foreign transient workers.

The streets are quieter than those of the traditional city centre, and deserted compared to suburban locations. But it may be that plenty of commercial activity is still taking place on laptops in the occupied apartments above.

Local estate agent, Owen Reilly, also lives in the area and manages an estate of 500 apartments. He argues that any sense of a quarter in crisis is vastly overblown, and that the worst has passed.

“Initially, when the tech companies were advising their staff to work from home until July next year, about 7 per cent of our tenants left straight away and went back to their home countries,” he says. They mostly returned to France, Italy, Spain and Germany, according to Reilly.

Rents are high in the area. Two-beds are being advertised on Daft.ie from upwards of €2,400 per month, and were higher when demand peaked before the pandemic. Reilly says rents fell by about 7 per cent in the second quarter.

But, he insists, the tech companies are once again renting apartments nearby, as staff continue to join their operations even as they must work from home.

Any “void” in absent tech workers was quickly filled by others from financial services, he says. Reilly says 60 per cent of rentals in the second quarter last year were to tech workers: in the same period this year, that had dropped to 36 per cent. But the tech trend has recovered in the third quarter, he says.

“There is particularly strong demand from Amazon. The market has stabilised,” he insists. In Q2 last year, only 8 per cent of new tenants were Irish. This year, it was 17 per cent. There has also been a “pick-up” in Indian workers seeking accommodation.

Reilly believes Google will bring Irish workers back to its offices sooner than people think, and that the area will quickly regain its buzz as soon as the pandemic passes, although nobody knows when that will be: “Some days are buzzier than others. The Airbnb apartments have come back for long-term rental and the council should keep it that way. I am against tourists staying here.”

It doesn’t have the same bustle. It isn’t just the daytime office workers. The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre was a big draw for people in the evenings

Tourist rentals are dominated by tech platforms such as Airbnb and also Booking. com, and do not need the services of estate agents.

Despite Reilly’s educated optimism for the local community of workers, it is still obvious that there has been a near-total collapse in the numbers of workers who live elsewhere travelling into the area each day. In response to a query from The Irish Times, Irish Rail said this week the numbers passing through nearby Grand Canal Dart station are down 80 per cent. The fall in traffic there has been greater than anywhere else on the line.

Local Green party councillor Claire Byrne said it is “crushing” to see what is happening to the docklands area and other areas close to the city centre.

“It doesn’t have the same bustle. It isn’t just the daytime office workers. The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre was a big draw for people in the evenings. Every company obviously needs to prioritise the health and safety of their staff. But the big worry is that we are catering here for a transient part of the city.”

She worries for the future of the “long-term community” in the area the longer the effects of the pandemic keeps the docklands subdued.

“We need workers back here, and right across the city, as soon as it is safe. The attraction of working from home is wearing off for a lot of people,” she says.

Optimism

The sprawling Google complex behind the Grand Canal area, on Barrow Street, is as dead as the rest of the quarter. But back across the street from the bottom of Misery Hill, beside where Google pulled the plug on its Sorting Office talks, there is optimism.

Dalata owns the Maldron hotel on Cardiff Lane, next door to Marlet’s new scheme. Pat McCann, the group’s chief executive, acknowledges the area will find it tough as long as the pandemic requires restrictions on office working. But the hotel, which has a pool and leisure centre, has pivoted to domestic leisure travellers and couples, and occupancy is at “35-40 per cent”.

Dalata owns hotels in London, where Boris Johnson’s government has been encouraging people to go back to the office. McCann says its reservation system shows that this results in an instant uptick in commercial activity. So perhaps Dublin can bounce back quickly as soon as the virus allows.

“There are challenges in the evenings here as long as the theatre is closed. But this area will ride it out. We will return to a new sense of normality.”

McCann says there has been a pick-up in activity from the hotel’s presence on global distribution systems – mainly used by big corporates – as recently as the last week: “As soon as the Government eases restrictions, hotel bookings come back quickly. But the Government needs to get people moving again. We need people back in offices, because that is where collaboration happens.”

Dalata is “back in discussions” with nearby tech giants on bookings for next year, presumably provided their executives are allowed to fly in from the US.

As the fading evening light reflects off the vast mirror that is the back of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, local business owners seem determined that the sun will not set on the area’s long-term progress.

But for now, as long as the virus is here, the clouds remain.

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