It has been considered the heartbeat of retail activity in the capital but there are signs Grafton Street is waning, thanks in some small part to the Luas extension that has carved open the city.
In the 14 years before the emergence of the Luas Cross City, thousands of daily commuters would leave the Green Line trams and fan out across the southside, a large proportion of them filtering through Grafton Street.
They passed coffee shops on their way to work, and retail outlets on their way home. It was a supply line of customers for the city’s premier shopping district. But things seem to have changed.
"We had anticipated and recorded our expectation that Grafton Street footfall would reduce, as people stay on the Luas until they reach their destinations beyond St Stephen's Green," says Dublin Town, the city business group that measures on-street footfall data and its changing patterns.
“This expectation has been borne out. Grafton Street’s total footfall has declined by 5.2 per cent this year.”
As well as ferrying people in and out of work, the Luas service is a key feeder for the city's businesses. The impact of the Cross City joining Red and Green lines is difficult to measure accurately, as both National Transport Authority and Central Statistics Office data will not be available until next year.
Anecdotal evidence, following an initial period of disruption caused by its construction, is mixed.
Not worth wait
Elizabeth Beattie, manager of the Health Matters shop on Grafton Street, estimates that the Luas works led to a 10 per cent drop in business during 2016. Now the light rail is in service she does not believe the wait was particularly worth it.
“We had great expectations that it would bring a lot of customers up here but it doesn’t seem to have done anything,” she says, as her shop and others prepare for the busy Christmas season.
But the ripple effects for city commerce are as difficult to weigh as the initial passenger movements. Of particular note is the simultaneous city development along the Cross City line itself, as much a reflection of a surging economy but also a feature of the transport artery’s success.
“What has been happening on Dawson Street has been phenomenal, and that’s the Luas,” says David O’Connor, lecturer in transport planning and urban design at DIT. “It’s like a release valve for the high rents on Grafton Street, which were ridiculous. Now it’s [a case of] spread the love; you have investment moving over to Dawson Street.”
As O’Connor says, the emergence of the Luas should not simply be seen as an accessibility issue but one of redesigning streetscapes.
Dawson Street is seen as an exemplar of the new economy’s impact on the city. However, much of its facelift can be directly linked to the Luas.
Ulysses Rare Books, on the adjoining King Street, has seen the rough and tumble of the line's development, from the strangle effect of construction works to the increased footfall that eventually followed.
"I think it has helped. This side around Grafton Street or Dawson Street there seems to be more people coming up from the Luas stop; it's really busy at that stop," says co-owner Aisling Cunningham.
This year has been one of the best since the recession, falling nicely on their 30th anniversary. “Even the Luas couldn’t get rid of us,” she jokes, belying the frustrations of its earlier construction.
Another major retail development is pending on the corner of Dawson Street facing Trinity College, but such activity is not limited to the most upmarket parts of the city.
Graeme McQueen, head of public affairs at Dublin Chamber, notes that real estate hugging the Luas Cross City line is being watched carefully. Among those areas he counts as either earmarked for development or ready for it, are the Carlton Cinema site and the wider O'Connell Street area, Marlborough Street, Suffolk Street and Molesworth Street, all standing to benefit from the trams.
“As time has gone on, passenger numbers have gotten busier and busier every day. And some of the feedback is that we have got people who are re-experiencing the city again,” he says. “We are still seeing the city kind of evolving again.”
This evolution is reflected in pedestrian activity, too. One of the main hopes for the Cross City was that shoppers, in particular, would be liberated to cross the Liffey at ease, breaking a somewhat cultural north-south divide. It is too early yet to see if this has happened, and the Christmas shopping period will probably turn up telling data on passenger movement.
Dublin Town says that, like most retail destinations, the city has experienced an overall decline in footfall this year, in large part due to the rise of online shopping.
In the city it fell 2.2 per cent compared with about 3 per cent at Dundrum Town Centre, the benchmark of suburban retail.
“Within this, patterns of footfall have changed,” it says. “Across the Liffey there has been a shift. Henry Street and Mary Street have seen an increase of 4.5 per cent in footfall, and Talbot Street has seen an increase of 15.4 per cent so far this year.”
O’ Connell Street fell 6.2 per cent, but this may be down to people walking along the central median, which is served by the Luas, rather than the side footpaths, where footfall cameras are positioned.
Sven Spollen-Behrens, director of the Small Firms Association, has also noted a shift since the introduction of the Cross City. Some of the slight downturn in business in the hospitality sector this year is put down to passengers now bypassing the Grafton Street area, he says, but this is offset by an increase around Henry Street on the northside.
Aside from passenger movement, businesses are noticing other shifts too.
"What we are seeing is much younger customers coming in. Dublin is a really younger city now," says Declan Abrahams of Abrahams tailoring on South Anne Street, noting that older customers are probably more wedded to their cars.
“It’s not all due to the Luas but still the Luas delivers the people,” he said. “Was it worth waiting for? It was. You have to break a few eggs ... Whatever the saying is.”