“It was a good shopping centre at one time because it had great variety. It had bakeries, it had restaurants. At one stage we even had a laundry,” says 84-year-old Alex Sproule, who has lived in Ballymun since 1986.
He was recalling the heyday of the now almost-vacant Ballymun shopping centre. Located just off the Ballymun Road, it was once surrounded by seven 15-storey residential tower blocks. These are long gone now though, the last having been demolished in 2015.
Sproule has heard of the plans to build a new food store and other shops on vacant council-owned land where towers once stood.
But he says he and other locals wonder why the old shopping centre can’t just be refurbished and made attractive for new tenants.
“People would say that there is space there, there’s units and it would be better to occupy them that to demolish them,” he says.
The old shopping centre’s entrance is flanked by a mural depicting the seven executed leaders of the Easter Rising. The old tower blocks were named after each of them when they were first built in 1966.
The towers came down in the years following the 1997 master plan, which envisioned an audacious regeneration of the estate. Today, the interior of the shopping centre has long rows of empty units, one after another, dusty and empty.
Now, as part of the Ballymun Local Area Plan (LAP) that Dublin City Council put on public display in the Ballymun Civic Centre this autumn, the council envisages three new blocks containing a mixed of shops and homes being built in the area.
In with the New
Located on land just north of shopping centre, the current plan is for these three new blocks to eventually combine student accommodation, a Lidl food store, and some smaller unspecified businesses. Some locals are sceptical.
Tony Greene, a local resident and activist with People Before Profit, says that the Ballymun regeneration of the 1990s and 2000s translated into a lot of broken promises. As he walks past an almost empty car park and gestures to the shopping centre’s rear entrance, there is little movement behind its glass doors
“While [the local area plan] is very laudable, we’ve heard this before. Why don’t we just go back and finish the regeneration? I don’t want to be a malcontent about it, but it’s yet to be proven that they have to keep their promises,” he says.
Fianna Fáil Councillor Paul McAuliffe called a meeting for local residents at the Ballymun Civic Centre on 5 October, and briefed them on what the local area plan might bring, in terms of shopping options.
“We disposed of [the land] to Lidl pending planning, so if the planning is granted, the sale will go through. My understanding is that the councillors have voted for it to be sold to Lidl. The application has been submitted by Lidl so Lidl are the developer.”
Dublin City Council management in January proposed selling the land to Lidl for €2.4 million plus VAT, on the condition that they lodge a planning application for the whole scheme within eight weeks, and start work within 12 months of the grant of planning permission. At their February monthly meeting, councillors voted to approve this plan.
The council does not have information on what would be in the new development, aside from the Lidl and the student accommodation, McAuliffe said. “The concern would be that planning would be granted and we would make sure that conditions ensure that all the development happens,” McAuliffe said.
The decision to combine retail and student accommodation in the multi-storey blocks was integral to the plan. “At nighttime we don’t want places that are just shops and at nighttime they’re dangerous,” he says. “We want people living there because there’s what they call passive policing.”
After an application phase “for the whole plan” that is set to end on 23 November, it should take approximately 18 months to build the Lidl store, McAuliffe says. “The question is that once it’s planned what will happen because all we can do is give planning permission for it,” he said.
Lidl lodged a planning application on 29 September for the three-block development. It proposes 364 beds of student accommodation in two of the blocks, ranging in height from four to six storeys, with a 10-storey “landmark corner” at the junction of Main Street and Balbutcher Lane. These towers would have two retail units and two cafe units on the ground floor.
The third block would have a discount foodstore (presumably a Lidl) and office space. The plan also calls for the “integration” of the Horizon Centre, a local community resource centre dedicated to the treatment of addiction. Designs submitted along with the application show how it all might look.
Out with the Old
The old shopping centre is to be demolished. Councillor McAuliffe said that “it’s likely to happen later this year or early next year”.
At the Ballymun Civic Centre meeting in early October some residents suggested that the €6 million that it’s estimated demolishing the old shopping centre will cost, could instead be used to refurbish it.
“Don’t just knock down the shopping centre and hope for the best,” said local resident David Butler during a question and answer session after the meeting. He is campaigning online to attract new tenants to the original shopping centre.
Some residents argue that the proposed new plan is too little, too late. Paddy Haughey, a veteran community activist in Ballymun who runs the local Plough Youth Club says that numerous types of items, such as clothing, are only available outside the community, and that the presence of a Lidl will not change this.
“There’s no other way we can live here without shops. There are towns and villages across the country with shopping centres and all sorts of things, and they’ve half the population of Ballymun,” he says.
Regarding the possibility that shops in the new development might sell items currently unavailable to Ballymun’s shoppers, McAuliffe said that “when the tender went out, there wasn’t an interest from a clothing retailer for the site”.
Tesco, which left the old shopping centre some years ago, has lodged objections to Lidl stores in the past through An Bord Pleanála, McAuliffe said. If it does so in this case, that may cause delays in the store’s construction. In an email message, Tesco declined to comment when asked if the company had any concerns or objections about the planned Lidl food store.
Says Sinn Féin Councillor Noeleen Reilly: “I think most people are happy [about Lidl] because at least it’s something that’s happening. I think people are very frustrated about commitments that were made during the regeneration that were never delivered on. They won’t be delivered on now, but what we need to do is we need to get Lidl up and running and whatever additional shops will be there.”
Beyond Lidl’s Development
The local area plan also allows for the construction of up to 2,000 new homes on 34 hectares of land that is set to be redeveloped within Ballymun.
Robert Murphy, owner of the SuperValu located beside the old shopping centre, and chairman of Ballymun 4 Business, a local networking organization, cites a population figure from the last census.
“The population of Ballymun has [in 2017] dropped down to 17,000 people. We envisaged 23,000 people [living here] after the master plan was completed. We can still house another 5,000 people with the development sites that are available.
“If development and the city council work in tandem, we could be looking at a very different town in five years,” he says.
While acknowledging that Lidl’s nearby presence could be a challenge to his own business, he says “we offer difference services, home delivery, online shopping and our full deli and butchers. Ballymun needs a diverse mix to stop the retail seepage that it’s been suffering from.”
Most people agree that the present state of affairs should not continue. Locals now need to shop for important items in other parts of north Dublin. Many hope the local area plan is not another false dawn.
“The original plan for Ballymun was never completed either,” says Alex Sproule, the long-time resident. “There was supposed to be a cinema, a bowling alley in the past. All those things were never built.”