Fixing Smithfield with UnCommercial Enterprise

Smithfield is a failed space.

The property developer is in trouble. The way things are starting to shape up, it looks like it will end up being mostly owned by the state. But of more immediate interest, and importance, is that the area (near my office, I should say) is failing to cater for the people who live and work there.

One side of the square has the Children’s Court, a hotel which has repeatedly failed, a lovely tourist attraction (the chimney) which is only erratically open. An ailing or closed video shop and spar complete the picture.

Facing them, is a network of new little streets and retail boxes, topped by multiple stories of apartments. Most of the former are obviously empty.

When, rather than if at this stage, the National Asset Management Agency takes control of all this property, what will it do with it? Will it seek to maximise the state’s assets- shutting down tenants who are unforthcoming with rents?

Where does this get us all? A public space driven further towards desolation. Even less reason for potential apartment purchasers to want to live there. Nobody going there. Nobody gains.

So, I’d like to propose a new way to think about these ‘property assets’, which are also the towns and cities we all have to live in. If we accept that the tide has gone out, and won’t be back for a while at least, then trying to charge commercial level rents in an area with a desert of footfall is counterproductive.

Retail units stay empty. Nobody wants to go there because nobody is there. The retail that is there suffers, consequently. The landlord makes less money by looking for more.

Smithfield, as it stands, can’t maintain the required number of commercial enterprises to make it a viable place to live or work.

I propose that it sets out to become a home to UnCommercial Enterprises.

By that I don’t mean that they would all be not-for-profits or that the people working in them wouldn’t get paid. Rather I mean that the landlord would offer the currently desolate spaces to applicants at no or, at most a token, rent.

High rents are what kills creativity in retailing in Ireland. Without that massive overhead, we could see a hundred strange ideas rise and fall. Instead of a monoculture (everything a clothes shop, because they have high mark ups and low staff needs, for example) we could actively manage the mix to encourage a diversity of shops and services.

Create somewhere people want to go to feel part of something and you will have solved Smithfield’s main problem.

Temple Bar is the prime example of how this works. Not the Temple Bar you know about- the one managed by Temple Bar Properties and filled with tidy coolness. But the messy, Temple Bar of artists’ studios and quirky cafes in crumbling buildings that grew organically on licences and short leases while CIE prepared to level the entire city quarter and build a bus depot on it. It was the ability of that space, growing in the centre of town without any direction and freed of the expectation that they would turn in big money rents to CIE, to be interesting that attracted interesting people. It was eventually the living cultural contribution of those artists and teenagers on which the State-sanctioned branding of Temple Bar as the Cultural Quarter was built.

Smithfield has a few geographical assets. It is across the river from the National College of Art and Design. An obvious first step would be to offer low cost artist’s studio space. It is also just a bridge crossing away from the Digital Hub. Soaking the whole square in free Wifi would act as a magnet. Downriver, it is close to the Four Courts, crammed with young barristers with a lot of time on their hands. Upriver, it has the National Museum. It has its own Luas stop.

Let us see a modern Partisan Coffee House. A Victorian style Cabinet of Curiosities. Shops that stock every Little Magazine in the world. Let a thousand mad flowers bloom. Every one will manage to give at least one job to the area. They will bring life to a dead space. They will bring meaning and culture to a place that still feels as lifeless as a computer generated Artist’s Impression of what a development could look like.

If successful, the state will have increased the value of all that land collatoral we’ll own. There will have been a small bubbling fleet of new jobs and businesses enabled. The local community will get to live in an active, busy place with its own culture. And the city will have gained an attractive space where new ideas can take root.

At the price of a little bit of imagination, we have a chance to make something good for us all. I think we should take it.

16 Comments

  • Barry says:

    Interesting article. I agree with you. Give the area a niche or selling point that sets it aside from other areas of town. Could low commercial rents have any adverse effect? The lighhouse cinema should probably get a mention in the mix? I didn’t think it should have been placed there anyway, not enough footfall for an arthouse cinema?

  • One group of people who might benefit from low rent stimulation would be sporting organisations who, during the Celtic Tiger (RIP) years found the inner-city community halls, old garages and warehouses, and defunct churches they once used as their bases of operation snapped up by developers (indeed, there were a few such places in Smithfield before the renovation). A low rent to groups like these would

    a) provide a social amenity to people living in the area
    b) provide a facility for people connected to the community in the area (by reason of residence, work, or luas) to develop shared interests
    c) provide opportunity for people to try new sports or use their skills and talents to help a voluntary group.

    Creating a ‘buzz’ would help the long term viability of the apartments as people might actually move in if there was something to do in the area during the day or in the evening.

    Unfortunately, this involves a plan, thinking outside the box and (heaven forfend) actually admitting that other people have the answers. Three things that our present leadership have lacked in relatively equal measure for quite some time.

  • Justin Mason says:

    Agreed! I’d love to see that.

    Some friends of mine ran a successful coffee/sandwich/soup place in Temple Bar for several years, and at one stage investigated rents for similar premises on Smithfield. they were shocked to discover city centre prices, so gave it a miss. I’m sure they weren’t the only ones in that boat.

    There are definitely a few very interesting spots around Stoneybatter; no reason those guys couldn’t be tempted to Smithfield with some good deals.

  • Sean McGarr says:

    Interesting article. From what I hear a lot of people have the same idea, there’ve been a couple of exhibitions staged there recently in empty shops. A friend is trying to get temporary space there at the moment for that purpose but finding it a bit difficult. It will be interesting to see how long this new creative space remains creative though before it gets whored out again.

  • EWI says:

    One side of the square has the Children’s Court, a hotel which has repeatedly failed, a lovely tourist attraction (the chimney) which is only erratically open. An ailing or closed video shop and spar complete the picture.

    Facing them, is a network of new little streets and retail boxes, topped by multiple stories of apartments. Most of the former are obviously empty.

    Hi, Simon. Interesting topic (I know the area quite well). In addition to Barry’s point on the Lighthouse Cinema (which people miss because of the lack of signage) you’ve left out the (expensive yet always busy) Fresh, the Cobblestones pub/venue – and, quite importnatly, the LUAS stop. Incidentally, the Spar (which had just moved into new premises) went under not because of lack of business, but because of a fire and extensive smoke damage from an adjacent underground car park.

    I entirely agree with you on the missed opportunities presented by this recession to offer premises at bargain rates in order to get enterprise – and social – use going in these new urban spaces (the missed opportunity to have Smithfield be a larger open urban area, suitable for big events, is a battle long lost). As regards getting involved in the Development Plan; have you seen this?

    http://www.boards.ie/vbulletin/showthread.php?t=2055484725

  • Simon McGarr says:

    Sean,
    Is your friend talking to the developer or to one of the retail spots?

    I think it could do with going beyond exhibitions to something wider. But it is good to hear that the first steps are underway.

  • sw says:

    stables 🙂

  • Fiona says:

    Well said, and not just because I live around the corner in Stoneybatter. I do agree about the poorly signed Lighthouse Cinema, but I would argue for it to remain where it is on a number of grounds. Thisisnotashop should also get a heads up – more of that would be a welcome addition to the area, though I don’t know what their leasing arrangement is. Oh, and perhaps some decent food?

  • Simon McGarr says:

    Fiona,

    there used to be a place up around the corner from the top of the square called Stew Station, which served up sauce based dinners in a bowl. It had a lovely model railway running around the roof. It never seemed to notice that it needed to let the potential hungry masses know it was there.

    A couple of special offer posters in the Law Society School in Blackhall and the Bar Council Distillary Building could have made all the difference.

    The Lighthouse Cinema could also think about putting films on at times that us 9-5.30 workers might be able to go to. Unlike their usual 4pm or 8pm choices.

  • EWI says:

    Thisisnotashop

    Cad é sin? I was around Smithfield at 6.30pm today – and you’ll never guess the well-known pair of Irish bloggers that I did see in front of Fresh at that time – but couldn’t find this particular establishment.

  • Mark Dowling says:

    Has a rental auction ever been done in Ireland? This would ensure NAMA got best value while allowing pay-what-you-can rents. The contracts could be on a 12 month rolling basis to prevent the rug being pulled out from nascent businesses at the first sign of rebound/re-boom

  • Fiona says:

    I remember Stew Station, and have been bemoaning its loss for some time, Simon – and you’re right, it seemed nobody really knew it was there. Any idea where they went?

    And I seem to remember thisisnotashop being on Smithfield square, but it seems to have moved to Benburb street – or was it always there? Have I lost my mind?

  • The Raven says:

    I just read your blog over on Slugger – here’s my tuppence.

    The rent greed is something which affects a lot of small market towns in Northern Ireland too. Again we’re back to the notion of incentivising.

    Many of the property owners in question have long since paid for their properties. And yet many would rather sit with their properties empty than have a tenant in them at even a reduced rate. Similarly, there’s a need for local authorities, LPS and the Assembly (remember them?) to come up some new formulae on how commercial property is rated.

    I never quite understood how we ended up charging six grand for “services” on a property on the Lisburn Road just because someone was brave enough to turn it into a business.

  • Dan Sullivan says:

    This is a good idea. We lack the tradition around brownfield or even greyfield development that exists in other countries the US in particular. It’s all about holding out for a high rent while earning nothing from not renting. Instead of making sure you have some income coming in and making the area more attractive for footfall and eventually giving yourself more chance to recoup your costs.

  • EWI says:

    It’s all about holding out for a high rent while earning nothing from not renting. Instead of making sure you have some income coming in and making the area more attractive for footfall and eventually giving yourself more chance to recoup your costs.

    Time for some government intervention…

  • Well, what would be done with the space, really? It’s really hard to kit out and staff even a basic shop with the costs in Dublin the way they are. Even the rates are a lot. You have to pay minimum wage, which means that if you want to open 8 hours a day (which isn’t much) you’ll need 120 euros a day in gross profit to pay the wages before you even get into overheads.

    It’s hard to get really small businesses to work in this environment. There has to be a pretty big run-rate for it to be worth opening a business.

    And someone opening a shop would need to have some sort of tenure there to make it worthwhile going to the effort of building up the site.

    The trick for the area is to increase the foot traffic. The cinema is probably the key to doing this, but it needs a lot of work which really hasn’t been put in.

    Even the South Docks, which in many ways is more successful than Smithfield has difficulties with attracting any sort of heterogeneity.

    I agree some new model is needed to sort this out, but it really needs to be radical if it isn’t going to be better for the landlords to just stick it out.

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