Sunday, 12 October 2008

Northern Quarter close to signing up retailers for prime central Dublin site

The owners of the planned €750 million Northern Quarter in central Dublin are close to sealing deals with retailers for the scheme, according to the project’s manager, John Laker.

He said that work on the development, which includes a major expansion of the Arnotts department store, would start next summer, despite the economic downturn.

Laker was chairman of Centros, a British firm that was working with Arnotts on the Northern Quarter, but has just left the company, taking the Dublin project with him. He will now manage the development through his firm, LDM, which employs four people at an office in Dublin and expects to increase staff as the project develops.

A further three to four people in Arnotts are also working on the development, according to Laker. He said that the team was focusing on detailed designs for the Northern Quarter, including some ‘‘non-controversial changes to help it on its way’’.

As well as revamped Arnotts and Penneys stores, the Northern Quarter is to include a four-star hotel, 47 shops, 14 cafes and bars, 121 apartments and 350 parking spaces. In total, it will have almost one million square feet of commercial space, bordered by Henry Street and O’Connell Street.

‘‘We are getting secondary anchorage retailers at the moment and will soon make some announcements,” said Laker.

‘‘It is actually easier to let to tenants for schemes that are three to four years away. This [recession] is a cycle and we will come out of it. Retailers still need to take good attractive space to maintain their market share.”

Laker said he was a ‘‘total believer’’ in the Northern Quarter scheme, which has been put together over several years by Arnotts chief executive Richard Nesbitt and is backed by Boundary Capital and Anglo Irish Bank. ‘‘As a retail-led development, it’s probably the best opportunity I’ve come across in my 30-odd years in this business,” said Laker.

‘‘It involves creating a new street running parallel with one of the two prime streets in a major European capital. It will be the new flagship retail area. It has very strong shareholders in Richard Nesbitt and Niall McFadden [of Boundary], and it has got a great trading entity in Arnotts. If this doesn’t go ahead, nothing will,” he said.

Following objections to the original planning by groups including An Taisce, the Railway Procurement Agency and An Post , An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for the scheme in July with 26 conditions. It reduced the size of the scheme and did not approve plans for a 16-storey tower, meaning its tallest elements will be seven storeys high.

‘‘I am very disappointed they gave us a crew cut on it, but we are pleased overall - getting approval was an achievement in itself,” said Laker, who described his first experience of the Irish planning system as ‘‘quite an unusual process’’.

‘‘There is a lot of genuine support for this scheme and for Arnotts as a brand name,” he said. Laker said that reports that Centros had a 20 per cent stake in the Northern Quarter development were not accurate.

‘‘It was talked about, but it never happened - there were discussions, but once they got Anglo and McFadden, it was not needed.”

He said that preliminary work on the Northern Quarter would start in the middle of next year. The scheme is expected to take at least four years to complete. ‘‘I am very happy to be taking this on,” said Laker. ‘‘I wouldn’t be moving if I wasn’t.”

Laker worked at Centros for 12 years, first as development director and later as managing director and then chairman.

He said the decision to leave Centros was ‘‘a very amicable parting of ways’’ and said that his former employer was in a healthy financial state.

Earlier this year, Centros shelved plans for a town centre scheme in Dumfries in Scotland.

Sunday Business Post

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