BYLINE: Mark Keenan
SECTION: Features; Eire Ireland Home 12
LENGTH: 1069 words
With nightlife and open-air concerts, Dublin’s Smithfield area once buzzed. But now it faces a crisis, its future partly dependent on the Luas, writes Mark Keenan.
Weather-beaten men in cloth caps struggle to keep huge angular piebalds in check, while nearby a cigarette-chomping 12-year-old has three ponies tethered by string.
Across the way, teenagers ride bareback on a line of carthorses through the tight-knit crowds, here and there little clusters engaged in serious horse-dealing.
The traditional scene of the Smithfield Horse Fair might have been the same a hundred years ago. Today it jars noticeably with its surroundings, the streamlined modern architecture that has sprung up here in the past 10 years as part of the area’s much-mooted rejuvenation.
Now the days of the horse fair might be numbered. There have been efforts to move the monthly event elsewhere. More recently, the fruit-and-vegetable markets, which have so long epitomised Smithfield, were shut down to make way for new buildings.
The buzz of commerce has subsided in Smithfield as many of the traditional early-morning traders have packed away their fruit and vegetables and moved on. Wholesalers fed up with the lack of traffic access and the obstructions caused by constant construction work are also moving out.
And although they are leaving, the future residents of the huge development on the west side of the square will not be moving in for at least another two years.
The construction work and the vacuum created by the market’s demise mean that Smithfield is entering a dangerous period.
A number of the more modern shops have recently closed their doors because custom fell off due to the lack of access. The Duck Lane retail project was not a success, and the Ceoil music centre also closed from lack of interest.
Under the Historic Area Rejuvenation Project (Harp), Smithfield has achieved much already. Unfortunately, the ultimate success of an area that does not sit along any natural routes is tied to something that falls outside the remit of the local authority.
Work is continuing on the Luas route, which will link Heuston and Connolly stations. This transport service is destined to provide Smithfield with its main lifeline.
Statements before the recent budget hinted that the government was considering postponing certain elements of the Luas plan. However, without Luas, the Smithfield area has no chance of regeneration.
Also important for the area’s success as a working/living village is the success of the Dublin Institute of Technology’s plan to amalgamate all its colleges into one huge campus at Grangegorman. This project, in turn, cannot succeed without the provision of the Luas route.
Today, Smithfield’s trademark is no longer the horse fair or markets, but rather the smooth civic square, with its iconic flanks of modern gas standards, and the polished glass lift that slides up and down the chimney of the former Jameson Distillery.
It was here at the old distillery that the current redevelopment drive for Smithfield was born. A decade ago, progressive developer Terry Devey came across the broken down complex in a dying docklands-reliant area. Rather than knock it down, he decided to use the stone remains to create a modern village.
Award-winning architects A&D Wejchert were commissioned and plans were drawn up for what would become an important hub in the run-down district.
Andrei Wejchert says: “I remember walking around this broken-down building which had bushes growing out of the roof. The success of that project, I believe, was down to Devey’s ability to see how to blend buildings of different uses in the village. We were confident it would work but were also surprised at the reaction when 70% of the 230 apartments sold off the plans in one day,” says Andrei Wejchert.
It can be argued that without the ressurrection of the crumbling whiskey distillery into an instant village and focal point, there would not be the same momentum to Smithfield’s redevelopment.
Lessons have been learnt from the development of Temple Bar. The local authority, planners and the Harp team are keen to establish parameters for the nature of developments.
Temple Bar, which was to have been Dublin’s left-bank cultural quarter, became its tourist drinking strip instead.
George Perry, Harp’s project manager, is determined that this won’t happen in Smithfield. “We’re regulating the type of pubs and we’re even putting limits on their sizes to ensure that we have no superpubs. We’re trying to ensure that there is a perfect mix of commercial use and new residential use, as well as bringing on the existing community.”
There have been spats with residents, particularly over the use of the public square for private outdoor concerts during which many locals found they required access passes to get to their own homes. There is stalemate over the use of the square, Dublin’s largest, for public events. However, it was recently used as a temporary ice rink, a highly successful venture that was initiated by locals.
However, Smithfield’s development plan more than any other has strained to keep the locals on board. More than Euro 12m was recently spent upgrading local- authority flats in the area.
Among property investors, however, there are no doubts that Smithfield will ultimately be a runaway success. While Devey’s inaugural scheme saw a 70% sell-out on the first day, a recent development of 220 apartments was sold out in seven hours, generating Euro 120m.
Local people will be relieved to see work begin at the area’s biggest site at the west end of the square. The scheme is worth Euro 500m and will provide offices, a sports complex, offices, shops, restaurants, bars and apartments.
Despite a downturn in the economy overall, prices of between Euro 400,000 and Euro 550,000 secured for two-bedroom units show that the market has confidence in Smithfield. This is all the more remarkable given that they won’t be ready to occupy for a few more years.
When completed, the complex’s 300 apartments will inject a huge amount of activity.
Much then hangs on the DIT and the Luas plans. Perry says: “We’re sure that Luas will go ahead, there’s no question there. However, any delay would be worrying. It will slow down the development of Smithfield into a living, viable area in its own right.”