Last year, Dublin City Council put out feelers to see who might want to build on a chunk of the old shopping-centre site in the heart of Ballymun.
It had been 25 years since the council had drawn up a masterplan to redevelop the neighbourhood, showing a commercial district and a new shopping centre on the main street in the heart of the village.
The council got six submissions in response to its call out last year, said a recent report to local councillors. But none of them were what the council is looking for, it seems.
“Responses received do not present an optimum solution for the site,” says a report issued to councillors on the North West Area Committee on 18 July.
Dublin City Council didn’t answer queries about what kinds of submissions they got. But at the meeting, Jackie O’Reilly, the council’s Ballymun area manager, said the proposals had been “soft in terms of the mixed-use development”.
Current and former councillors, and those working in the community, said that putting a shopping centre on the site at the moment would be a challenge, as there isn’t enough disposable income in Ballymun to support that.
If plans for Metrolink – which in its current iteration includes a stop in Ballymun – go ahead, then that could change the calculus though, said Andrew Montague, a former Labour councillor and author of a government-commissioned report on the future of Ballymun.
Robert Murphy, a local businessman who runs the SuperValu in Ballymun, says the council should press on and build affordable homes on the land, which would bring in more people on middle incomes and fuel more shops and services, cafes, hairdressers and the like.
“Commercial isn’t going to stack up in Ballymun,” he says. “There is not enough disposable income.”
The Ballymun Local Area Plan – a council blueprint for how to develop the neighbourhood – shows space for around 300 homes at the western side of the shopping-centre lands, and 41,000 sqm of shops, offices or apartments at the eastern front where it meets Main Street.
The site is just one of many that the council owns in Ballymun. “There are over 30 sites, there are different ideas for every one of them,” says Sinn Féin Councillor Anthony Connaghan.
Most of the sites are designated for housing, according to the local area plan, but the shopping-centre site is designated for mixed-use, including commercial, says Connaghan.
“The promises over the years were that there would be a new shopping centre with the metro stop underneath,” he says. But the plans for the train line keep getting pushed out, he says.
Without the Metrolink in place, a shopping centre for Ballymun is not commercially viable, says Montague, the social researcher and former Labour councillor.
The council wants to attract commercial development and local people in Ballymun want a new shopping centre – but Ballymun is still one of the poorest places in Ireland, says Montague.
A retail study carried out in 2016 found that the community in Ballymun doesn’t have enough money to support more shops, he says. “It was quite bleak. The prospect of a shopping centre wouldn’t be viable. No one would invest in it.”
A mix of apartments and offices is the best-case scenario, he said. “Shops will survive if there are office workers there.”
Murphy, who owns the SuperValu in Ballymun – and was involved before in a community group with an alternative vision for the site – said the council needs to develop the land because it is a major part of the regeneration of the area.
He would rather see 600 or 700 affordable homes than see the site left lying idle, he said.
Affordable purchase and cost-rental homes would attract middle-income earners, he says.
Their disposable income is what would allow new businesses to start up and thrive in Ballymun, says Murphy. “Whatever is built commercially would have to piggyback on the new residential.”
What could it look like?
Montague says the council should design a pedestrianised area on the site. He conjures up a streetscape with narrow roads, businesses on the ground floor, and offices and apartments above them, six storeys at most.
“You can have quite a high density,” he says. “Something equivalent to Temple Bar, you have that enclosed feeling, it feels nice and people like to wander around.”
Ground floor uses should be flexible, he says, usable for different things until shops are viable.
Thanks to the regeneration, Ballymun looks much better than other areas of the city that are similarly disadvantaged, says Montague.
Because of its appearance, residential housing is viable, he says, particularly on this Main Street site. “They will want to build residential and if they only had to do a small amount of retail it would be viable.”
The affordable-purchase homes developed in Ballymun have sold and the student housing has also been successful, says Montague.
Once the plans for the Metrolink are firmed up there could be a lot more interest from developers in commercial development, he says.
Metrolink is currently scheduled to be up and running in Ballymun by 2034, he says. “If that keeps getting pushed out I don’t know if anything will happen.”