A sign for BB’s Hair and Beauty Salon is the only hint that one of the three empty shops on Santry Way in Ballymun were not always closed.
“No business there now for a good few years,” says Brendan Murray, who is rambling home from the shops in the Ballymun town centre, a loaf of Brennan’s bread in hand.
“The rent is probably too expensive,” he says – though it could be a nice little place for a hardware store, or maybe even a cafe, he adds, before continuing down the road.
The three empty shops, along with a Centra, on the corner of Santry Way and Coultry Road, comprise the Coultry Neighbourhood Centre.
Back when the regeneration was being dreamt up, Ballymun’s neighbourhood centres were envisioned as hubs of local commerce, where people could dash for a convenience shop – or to meet with friends, perhaps.
But some of the shop spaces have been stubbornly empty for years – a vacant blight that some locals blame on high rents, and that the council says is down to a cluster of other reasons.
Of 33 commercial units the council owns in Ballymun, six are empty, Liam Barry, the council’s economic development officer for Ballymun, said recently.
Three are in Shangan Neighbourhood Centre. Another three are in Coultry Neighbourhood Centre, he says.
Another strip on Coultry Road behind the Travelodge have also been empty since they were built as part of the regeneration – but he’s not counting those.
They’re tied up in a legacy legal case, says Barry. “It’s essentially around ownership.”
In the four years that Barry has been in his post, he estimates that he’s opened up each vacant unit for more than 60 viewings, he says. “The problem isn’t attracting interest, we get inquiries all the time.”
But often, that interest disappears, he says. “It really boils down to the risk involved.”
The neighbourhood centres are a bit off the beaten track, he says. The empty spaces there are what’s known as “shell and core” too – they’re the bare bones of a shop, so there’s the extra cost of any fit-out.
Some potential tenants are put off by reports of anti-social behaviour in the area. Some just can’t make the numbers add up, says Barry.
Neighbourhood centres are relying on local populations to sustain them, he says. “Spending power is still quite limited in parts of Ballymun.”
Generally, barbers and salons are safe bets that weather even recessions, Barry says. Yet the salon in Coultry Neighbourhood Centre closed. “That’s quite telling in my view,” he says.
The Ballymun masterplan designed five neighbourhood centres, which were to create that village buzz. Nobody would be more than five or 10 minutes walk from a hairdresser, chip shop, butchers, or pub, it said.
At the time, residents were served by 27 van shops, and community groups – numbering around 100 – that worked out of flats, basements, and lift shafts, said BRL, a company set up by the council in the 1990s to manage the regeneration.
Those would move to neighbourhood centres, each with “a distinctive character”, geared towards local needs, BRL said. BRL thought the van shops undermined “legitimate” retail activity of businesses paying rents and rates.
Neighbourhood centres would, in their place, become hubs managed by Ballymun Regeneration Limited on a non-profit basis, with any surplus going back into community projects, says an audit report.
But retail is challenging, says Barry. “The units were built to create that shop-local environment, and it hasn’t really worked.”
Efforts to Open
Inside the Centra, Luke Darling says he and his father John Darling – who manage the convenience store – have long harboured plans to take over one of the vacant units next door.
But that has stalled. “We wanted to put in a cafe to boost a bit of morale in the area,” says Luke Darling. “More jobs and stuff like that.”
In April 2016, Dublin City Council granted planning permission to Bertoni Limited, John Darling’s company, to do just that.
The cafe “will provide a unique focal point for the community and a convenient residential amenity where people can meet and interact”, its application had said.
Going by the busy deli at the Centra, the customers are there to support it, says Luke Darling. “Even when we started talking about it a couple of years ago, people dropping their kids to school were buzzing about it.”
They stopped in to ask when it would be open, if they could leave CVs, to proclaim how they were qualified to be chefs, he says.
But there have been hiccups and administrative snags, says Darling. “Another part of it was that the rent was just a bit high.”
The Darlings are still hoping to come to an arrangement with the council for low rent for the first year, as a trial, he says.
Independent Councillor Noeleen Reilly says she puts the vacancies in these spaces down to high rents in the area.
Recently, says Reilly, she was dealing with someone who wanted to open up in one of the vacant units. The council wanted “exorbitant rents on it”, she says.
Ready to Deal
Reilly says she’d rather see the buildings occupied, rent-free, while the business finds its feet, she says, than see it sit vacant.
“The idea that they’re just lying around,” says Reilly. “I don’t think that’s supporting the community, I don’t think that’s supporting new business.”
Dublin City Council is, and has been, open to those kinds of deals, says Barry, the council’s economic development officer.
“We are certainly open to doing flexible terms and conditions, and agreements with proposed tenants,” he said, speaking generally, rather than about any particular proposal.
Their guide is €200/sqm at the moment, he says – less than in Santry up the road, where similar spaces are €215/sqm, or in Finglas, Meekstown, where a coffee pod was listed recently for €300/sqm.
Say a business needs to spend money up front to refurbish the shop, or needs to buy equipment? The council is open to rent-free or low-rent periods as they get set up, says Barry.
But “unless the market is there and the local economy is supporting the business, rent-free periods, abated rents are not going to sustain a business long-term”, he says.
Darling says the cafe plan might be delayed but it’s not yet dead. They’re still hoping to get it up and running sooner rather than later, he says.
A Different Model?
When talk of retail in Ballymun crops up, some point to the co-operative or community-owned models that have, elsewhere, revived shops in underserved areas.
If the council got a proposal of that nature, they’d consider it, says Barry.
“We would be open to looking at a pop-up model initially, maybe to give a business or a group to trial something,” he says. “Where the council could support that is to agree a short-term licence.”
It’ll take something a little different to work, he says. “In my opinion, it will take something creative or innovative for them to be successful, for them to maybe attract footfall in from other areas.”
Another challenge is that the spaces were built for retail and other businesses might face other obstacles, he says.
Childcare facilities legally need outdoor space, for example, while gyms raise planning concerns around noise, he says. “I’m not saying they can’t be overcome, but there’s challenges with most propositions I guess.”
At the time of the regeneration, some groups working out of the to-be demolished flats raised concerns about the lack of planned office space and room for childcare facilities in community centres.
Barry says a wise man told him when he started that the best hope for the neighbourhood shops was local entrepreneurship. “If locals take on those units, they have a better chance of surviving. They will recruit locally, all of that,” he says.
The council is open to working with those from the area, he says. “But it comes down to money. If you wanted to open up a cafe, you’d need €100,000. Who’s willing to risk €100,000?”
“We’d be open to proposals of a social-enterprise nature, where there might be public funding behind it,” he says. “And, you know, create some jobs locally. All for it.”
Says Reilly, the independent councillor: “I was elected five years ago for the first time and if you had to said to me, ‘Oh, all those premises will still be there empty in five years time.’ I’d have been like, ‘No, that can’t happen’.”
The Next Stage
Barry says he is positive about the future of Ballymun.
“It is on the cusp of the next phase of the regeneration,” he says. “I know people don’t like to hear it but there was a 10-year period when nothing happened. Finances dried up and tools were downed.”
The shopping-centre demolition is imminent, he says. A new Lidl is being built with student accommodation too, and there’s the planned arrival of Metrolink.
All that will “really open up significant opportunities for Ballymun”, Barry says.
Reilly sees reasons to be hopeful too. But regeneration still has to be about more about bricks and mortar, she says.