Monday 26 September 2016

Blackstone goes shopping in Blanchardstown for US fund's latest move in Ireland

Published 01/05/2016 | 02:30

The Blanchardstown Centre in Dublin
The Blanchardstown Centre in Dublin

For most Dubliners, and those travelling from beyond the Pale, the Blanchardstown Centre is a handy place to get all your shopping done without having to cross the M50.

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Instead of going all the way into the city centre and negotiating all the hassle around car parking and driving restrictions, at Blanchardstown, customers can park in one of 6,000 car parking spaces and head into nearly every major retailer in the country.

In a way, that kind of attraction is what drove US investment fund Blackstone to offer between €920m and €950m to buy the centre from ­Stephen Vernon's Green Property. It's probably fair to say though that Blackstone's billionaire chief executive Stephen Schwarzman won't be popping into Debenhams to pick up a suit any time soon.

Blackstone, along with rival bidders the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Chartered Land, which was backed by Morgan Stanley, saw in Blanchardstown an opportunity to take an almost fully occupied and well maintained shopping centre with room for further development.

Blanchardstown was the biggest shopping centre in the country when it opened in 1993. While it is still plenty big, it also has huge development potential and this is exactly what Blackstone likes to do.

There is detailed planning consent for a 272,000 sq ft extension to the main centre including a big store spread over three floors, 17 smaller shops; a food court and an underground car park. The centre could theoretically double in size down the line depending on how things go. Blackstone, which loves to buy property, do it up, and sell it on, specialises in this sort of thing, although it rarely dabbles in shopping centres, preferring offices and hotels historically.

Assuming Blackstone now closes the deal, it will also mean that most of the biggest shopping centres in the country will be in foreign hands.

US firm Hines along with the private clients arm of UK bank HSBC own a majority stake in the Liffey Valley Centre, while UK property giant Hammerson and Germany's Allianz Real Estate expect to take control of the Dundrum Town Centre this summer after buying loans related to the centre last year. German fund Deka bought the Whitewater Centre in Kildare in March to take the biggest centre outside Dublin.

Does this matter? Not really. Much as we might like Irish property to be owned by the Irish, the reality is that the crash wiped out some of the country's biggest property owners. If overseas firms take care of the assets and improve them, nobody can complain.

It also reinforces the suggestion that Ireland is now seen as good as the likes of Barcelona, Edinburgh and Milan - a place that big international funds like to have some interest in.

The problem will be if Dublin starts to be compared to the likes of Paris, New York or London. That's what happened in the boom and should never happen again.

If it does, expect these funds to start selling. Fast.

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