Monday, 2 August 2010

Dublin Streets Where A Dream Died...

Junkies and empty spaces litter streets where a dream died...

The ill-fated Northern Quarter would have transformed our capital city:

A mid-afternoon stroll around the place that would have been known as the Northern Quarter shows, emerging from the cracks, what we have come to expect in these days of broken dreams.

There are junkies everywhere, in the numerous alleyways and on street corners, cravenly going about their business; there are the usual scatterings of beggars too, wrapped up quietly within themselves. In unequal measure, then, it is an uneasy landscape, both edgy and pathetic.

People walk past, eyes in the distance, without taking notice -- or so it seems -- hurrying for trains, cars, buses, and bicycles, any mode at all out of the city and home.

I was once familiar, indeed, with this area, before moving office in 2004, shortly after the arrival of the Luas -- a shining symbol of the new and of renewal, if ever there was one, at a time of optimism not that long ago.

These days, on Henry Street and on Middle Abbey Street -- and on all streets in between, and beyond -- there are boarded up shopfronts, some of them lying idle for what seems to be months. Or is it years?

The Irish Independent's old office is empty since Arnotts bought it six years ago, a vital part of what the Irish Times, with noticeable disdain, likes to call the retailer's "grandiose" plan. Now the old office serves only to advertise Arnotts' "bargain basement".

The Independent relocated to Talbot Street, a short distance away, but which is no better; it has its own social realities, alongside a psychedelic mix of headshops and Polski shops, and the like, which seem to open overnight and disappear just as quickly.

Back on Liffey Street, in what would be known as the Northern Quarter, discount stores are everywhere, their shelves piled high with cheap tat imported from God only knows where.

It is said that prostitutes also ply their trade around here and the names of Brazillians and Venezuelans occasionally appear in court reports of garda raids.

When it first opened, shortly before the Luas arrived, the Epicurean Food Hall gave us what Epicurus himself might have called a modest pleasure.

Lately it hasn't had the same atmosphere that it had during the heady days of the Celtic Tiger.

On Moore Street, me jewel and darlin' Moore Street, the Chinese are doing their thing, selling stuff to other Chinese and Africans through a hatch in a window.

The fruit sellers are still there of course, rare auld Dubelin wans, shouting and roaring and generally abusing passers-by. There is a strong smell of fish in the early evening sun.

This is to be cherished, they will tell you; they being the people who like to knock, who think they have an answer to everything -- or certainly the reason why -- neatly parcelled, and with assumption dressed up as fact.

To be cherished like Bewley's a few years back, when it was selling scorched coffee in stained white mugs; or like O'Connell Street, before its makeover, and the erection of the Spire, which, when it happened, was denounced by the same flat-earthers who now, smugly, almost welcome the strangulation at infancy of the Northern Quarter.

The dressed-up assumption is that Arnotts has been holed by hubris, the illusions of a property bubble. The truth is less simple.

In large part, says my man behind a big desk, it has more to do with debts of about €150m from a 2003 management buyout -- that and a few foolish decisions, granted -- and this most insidious of recessions: "In 08 and 09, sales fell off a cliff," he said, "from about €200m to about €120m."

What a magnificent concept it was, the Northern Quarter, to encompass much of what is already there and to add to it in so many ways: a lively shopping and entertainment area; 47 new shops; 17 new cafes, restaurants and bars; 189 apartments; and a 152-bed, four-star hotel, with Arnotts, the brand, still its centrepiece.

Huge sums of money were to be invested, around €750m. The banks were hammering down the door to lend about €500m. Anglo also encouraged a move, temporarily, to the Jervis Centre to keep alive the brand while work was under way. It was an ill-fated decision which cost Arnotts almost €30m before it was abandoned.

The Northern Quarter was more than a concept. Arnotts had done much to make it a reality. The going rate was paid for tracts of property, about €50m.

At the outset, the plan was met with typical cynicism, as these things tend to be -- especially when a few ambitious men stand to make a profit.

Almost inevitably, that cynicism gave way to objection. It cost Arnotts about €20m in professional fees just to get planning permission. Debts were approaching €300m before the crash came.

Similar objections have also delayed an adjoining plan, further up O'Connell Street, where stands today, as it has for years, the gaping wound that was the Carlton cinema.

Together, these developments would have reached out to Mick Wallace's Italian Quarter, and probably further down to the stagnating Smithfield. In the other direction, it might eventually have connected to the Docklands.

The upshot would have been a city centre, which had suffered from a clogged heart, breathing anew again, fresh and alive with the business of life -- eating, working, sleeping -- with all of the commerce that it would bring. Instead, we have the mess of today, worsening by the day.

Last week, the Irish Times said that the Northern Quarter, and by extension Arnotts, had been "fatally" undermined, not by legacy planning issues, not by legacy debts, not even by the collapse in retail, but by the "hubris" of the late boom years -- the "illusions" of the property bubble.

One man's hubris is another man's imagination. But, no, hubris is the charge, twice repeated; for it is the "poisonous legacy" of the boom years and threatens a 200-year-old fragment of national individuality, whose customers shop down the road in Pennys these days.

Arnotts, of course, is going nowhere. It will be with us, at least in name, for another generation and maybe for generations to come -- its pension fund alone is asset rich, to the tune of about €200m.

A buyer will be difficult to find, though, on account of its size, age, configuration and its union agreements; the retail and property empire cannot be easily split.

The tragedy of last week has nothing to do with the mawkish sentimentalism wherein we like to wallow: the end of Arnotts, Bewleys, Frawleys, even Switzers.

The real tragedy was confirmation that the desperately needed redevelopment of the north inner city, heralded by the new O'Connell Street, given a reality of sorts by Richard Nesbitt SC, and by others, is now mothballed.

There was another word, not hubris, more than a hint of which was in the air last week: it was the German word schadenfreude, which roughly translates as taking a strange kind of pleasure from the ruination of someone else's dream -- in this case, a dream that would have transformed the centre of Dublin into something appropriate for a modern European capital.

Ah, but no, that would only be to cue a lament for the passing, or indeed the "homogenisation", or even the "Anglicisation", of a thing called Irish shopping; a guilt-laden transaction these days, dying on its feet anyway -- the city, and the country, seemingly caught in its slipstream.

Article by Jody Corcoran - Sunday Independent

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