Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Hollowed out by the 'doughnut' effect

Limerick’s retailers hope new schemes will tempt suburban shoppers back to the city centre, writes LAURA SLATTERY.

LIMERICK IS a doughnut, according to the city centre’s retailers, and they don’t mean it as a compliment. With a fat ring of suburban shopping malls swallowing up available spenders into their inviting car parks, there’s a traffic-ensnared retail void right at the place where most cities tend to keep their busiest hubs of commercial activity: the centre.

Now a major plan to resuscitate the city’s retail heart has been derailed by the banking crisis. The 410,000sq ft Opera Centre, a €350 million project in which Anglo Irish Bank had a 50 per cent stake, has stalled indefinitely, the undeveloped site a bleak reminder of the ambition of the boom years.

For many city shopkeepers, however, lacklustre footfall along Limerick’s main arteries is a problem that originates decades ago, predating both Anglo’s hubris and Dell’s devastating redundancies.

“Really, the city council neglected the city and took its eye off the ball for 20 years,” says David O’Mahony, the chairman of O’Mahony’s bookshop, which trades over several well-stocked storeys on O’Connell St.

“It’s insane that the situation has been allowed to exist for so long,” he sighs.

The “situation” is that three separate councils have jurisdiction over the area that essentially makes up the city: Limerick City Council, Limerick County Council and Clare County Council.

The result of this administrative mishmash is that a string of shopping centres received permission to be built beyond the city’s patch, leaving those that were left in the centre floundering. “Like baubles on a necklace,” is how one person describes Limerick’s retail pattern – a more flattering description than a doughnut, perhaps, but no less dismaying for the city vendors fighting to attract a finite number of customers.

“No one in the city centre was unduly upset that the Parkway was shelved or the Crescent was refused its extension,” says O’Mahony.

The unfinished Parkway was a Liam Carroll speciality that started building before it had nailed down an anchor store. The brand-packed Crescent, located just past the city boundary in Dooradoyle, is already the biggest shopping centre outside the greater Dublin area, with Zara, Tommy Hilfiger, Next, HM, River Island, Monsoon and HMV all under its highly convenient roof. The Crescent was this year refused permission to expand again after the city council told a Bord Pleanála hearing that enough was enough: the city cannot be sacrificed to the suburbs.

“Most large urban centres would want to see the core supported first before you build around it,” says Tom Mackey, city manager of Limerick, matter-of-factly.

An application seeking the extension of the city council’s remit is sitting on the in-tray of Minister for the Environment John Gormley. “It would unite the city as one entity,” says Mackey.

In the meantime, Mackey is trying to unsnarl Limerick’s streets of its HGVs: the completion of an orbital route and building of a tunnel will allow for the pedestrianisation of O’Connell Street and the widening of the William Street footpaths, following an attractive pedestrianisation of Thomas Street and Bedford Row.

“To some extent, we’re very dependent on Government funding,” Mackey says ominously.

“Naturally, recession does slow things down.”

And the Opera Centre? “It’s hard to predict when it will be built,” he says.

For Oliver Moloney, founder of the Instore chain of furniture and giftware stores, the shame was that several businesses near his own Ellen Street store closed down to make way for the Opera.

“There was a bicycle shop, a butchers, a bar/restaurant,” he says, listing them.

“They created traffic for us. The pity was that it got that far and they sold their leases. But nobody knew what was coming, except for maybe David McWilliams. From the city council perspective, they’ve lost a lot of rate income.”

Like all analogies, the “doughnut” shape of Limerick is not a perfect fit. Apart from department stores Brown Thomas and Debenhams and a splattering of international fashion brands, the city centre also has something that tends not to be replicated in most standard-fit, inward-facing, privately developed shopping centres: independents.

“There are lots of brilliant independent traders on Roches Street,” notes former TV3 news reporter Laura Ryan, who, as Limerick City co-ordination officer, now has the job of promoting her native city.

“Tonight I’m going shopping with a girlfriend and we’re going to go for a glass of wine after. I’m not going to do that in a shopping centre,” she says.

Still, the Opera Centre would be a plus, Ryan thinks, especially if it managed to secure Marks Spencer, which is currently not in Limerick, but has toyed with several possible locations, including the rejected Crescent extension.

“I lived in Dublin for nine years and I have withdrawal symptoms from MS. Definitely, they would do so well in Limerick,” she says.

The weekend before last, Ryan helped organise Winterfest, a co-ordinated effort by Limerick’s retailers to entice people to shop. But although the event – which included a Georgian Quarter market, a range of discounts and a free-parking initiative – was a success, the Winterfest weather was too wintry for some.

The bad luck was encapsulated by the fate of the city council’s “green tree”. Plans to place the 100ft recycled-steel tree in the river were undone when the swelling waters allowed it to break free of its momorings and crash into Shannon Bridge. “It was always going to end up in the river,” says Ryan wryly.

Back in O’Mahony’s bookshop, there’s a display of “where did it all go wrong” economic books, while David McWilliams is due to pop in a couple of nights later to sign copies of his latest work.

O’Mahony, who sells academic as well as consumer titles, is enduring the “complete ripple effect” from Dell. “There’s been a massive drop in the resources of students and the resources of their parents as well,” he says.

O’Mahony has another hat – he is chairman of the Limerick Market Trustees, a historic body charged since the mid-19th century with operating or licensing any market that takes place in Limerick city “or one mile beyond”. But this involved “a significant amount of time spent running car parks”, he says. So the trustees began what’s now costed as a €2 million project to transform the Limerick Milk Market from a Saturday morning market to a six-day operation, with a weatherproof umbrella structure and five permanent units.

Earlier this month, with tenders awarded at recession-tastic competitive prices, the diggers finally moved into the cut-stone courtyard, not far from both Moloney’s Ellen Street store and the site of the Opera Centre.

“The Milk Market could be an events venue, it could be an outside broadcast area, it could be a cinema,” says O’Mahony, who hopes it will improve the city’s footfall when it opens in mid-2010.

“Limerick needs attractions, it needs places to visit. It has the river, it has the Hunt Museum, it has the retail diversity. But if you’re going into Limerick city centre, where are you going?”

The “community dimension” to the Milk Market will provide new opportunities for the local micro-enterprises that are expected to spring up in the wake of the closure of Dell’s manufacturing plant, O’Mahony adds. The city needs this more than any major retail scheme, he believes.

“With shopping centres, all you’re doing is replicating a theoretically English model and that is not what will help Limerick.”

Tomorrow : the series concludes in Belfast


2.5 million sq ft

– size of the retail space added to the Irish economy between 2002 and 2007, as a rash of major shopping centres were built or extended


– percentage vacancy rate in retail units in the Republic, according to the most recent survey by retail consultancy Experian


– number of retail jobs for which the industry will seek protection under the Government’s €250 million employment subsidy scheme, according to Retail Excellence Ireland


– number of people on the Live Register of unemployment benefit claimants in the county of Limerick, as of October 2009


– number of people who were on the Live Register in Limerick in October 2007

How the State became de facto shopping centre owners

ANGLO IRISH BANK’S stake in the Opera Centre means that its future is now entwined with that of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama).

Interests held by the nationalised bank in completed, half-finished and mooted retail projects will be part of the €77 billion in property, land and development loans being transferred to Nama.

Any retail schemes that were financed by AIB and Bank of Ireland in recent years could also end up in the Nama pot – but there are no official statistics on the value of retail-related debt that will now be dealing with a State agency as its lender.

Uncompleted schemes such as the €350 million Opera Centre – the other 50 per cent of which is owned by developers Jerry O’Reilly, Terry Sweeney and David Courtney – are part of the €46 billion of Nama loans that don’t currently produce any income from tenants.

Some of these projects will not proceed as they no longer make commercial sense. Some “may be viable of alternative uses or alternative project timescales are considered”, the Nama business plan states. But it is likely that Nama will try to maximise its regular cash income, which could mean borrowing more to complete unfinished shopping malls.

Any decision on schemes such as the Opera Centre will have to be taken in the context of a more downcast consumer economy.

Tom Mackey, Limerick’s city manager, is adamant that the Opera Centre will eventually “bring significant retail-led regeneration to Limerick’s city centre”, as the original brochure claimed, and that it won’t be one of those “sounded like a good idea at the time” schemes that never happens.

“That will happen in smaller commuter towns, but Limerick is the third city in the country. It is inevitable that if you have a major retail space, it will be developed,” says Mackey.

Irish Times


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