Cometh the moment, Comer the developer has boots on D4 ground
The Vet's College site in D4, which cost €171m in 2005, is being rebuilt
WHEN Ray Grehan paid a record-breaking €84m an acre for the former Vet's College site in Ballsbridge in November 2005, there were those who said Dublin was well on the way to outstripping Monaco for property prices.
And such was the euphoria surrounding the €171.5m D4 deal, there were plenty more who believed it. Luke Comer wasn't one of them.
"Monaco is something like the same size of my Dunboyne farm in total; it's about 300 acres I think in the whole country. I said at the time [that] the world's richest people live in Monaco for one reason and for one reason only because it's tax free and I was told, 'no, Ireland will surpass it'. It was wishful thinking," the Glenamaddy-born developer recalled as we sat down for coffee in the lobby of the Herbert Park Hotel last Monday afternoon.
These days Comer has a renewed interest in the prospects for Dublin 4, thanks to his decision to join forces with Mayo-based brothers Martin and Padraic McHale in bringing Ray Grehan's vision for the Vet's College site to fruition.
Having snapped up the 2.04 acre plot for the far more sober sum of €22m last year, the Comers and McHales have had boots on the ground for several months now and aim to have the superstructure of Number One Ballsbridge completed by July.
Asked what price expectations he has for the apartments which are due to come on stream first, Comer told the Sunday Independent they will be sold at "reasonable prices".
Elaborating on this, he added: "I'd say you'd be around €1,000 to €1,100 a square foot. In the same sort of location in London, you're looking at €3,000 to €3,500 a square foot. In Monaco, you're looking at €7,000 a square foot. I think Ballsbridge should be at least a quarter of the price of Monaco. That's what we'd be looking for, about a quarter of your average price in Monaco. Monaco averages at the moment, depending upon your location, about €3,000 to €7,000 a square foot. I think it's okay to talk about €1,000 a square foot in Ballsbridge." With some 130,000 square feet set aside for apartments in Number One Ballsbridge, Comer and his partners stand to clear a net profit of around €25m on the residential element of the development alone according to property industry sources.
Which is pretty impressive when one considers the figure doesn't even include the income to be derived from selling the car parking spaces in the underground four-storey car park.
Nor does it include the money to be made from the 175,000 square feet of office space at Number One Ballsbridge, which Comer says has already attracted significant interest from what he describes as "big multinationals". Once the costs of building those offices are stripped out, the Galway-born developer and his Mayo-based partners will be looking at millions in pure profit.
Comer is the first to recognise how good a deal they got with the Ballsbridge site. Commenting on the massive interest in prime Irish property assets among international investors, he said: "It's not that easy to buy stuff anymore. In 2011, we had the market to ourselves for about six months, and then gradually you would have another bidder. You thought they were bluffing you for a while, and then last year you knew they weren't bluffing you anymore.
"There were other bidders and you knew they were going to be putting you out if you didn't move.
"The marketplace has gotten pretty competitive now. We're happy with what we've done here. We're still looking at stuff and we'll buy it if we can get it at the right price."
Asked if he would be interested in buying the former Jury's and Berkeley Court site assembled by former 'Baron of Ballsbridge' Sean Dunne at a cost of €379m, Comer said: "I would say we'd have a go at it, but it depends on what price it goes for. I wouldn't be risking hundreds of millions on it. We'd go to a certain level on it and if it went for that, we'd buy it. Our level will be what we can get across Europe. It would have to be reasonable value for money.
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"At the moment it's looking like it could make too much money and we wouldn't want to be doing that."
Comer's belief that the former Jury's site might make "too much money" is informed largely by the presence of international funds which he says collected massive amounts of money that they now have to spend.
On this, he said: "There's no reason for it [the market] to be mad at the moment, but a lot of money was collected, some of it probably a little bit too late.
"They all thought they had plenty of time but Ireland is a small enough market at the end of the day. It didn't take much to drive up the prices.
"It's up to the home-grown buyers now to take it up. I don't think you need foreign money coming in here anymore stoking it up any higher than it already is."
Comer says he has been surprised at the speed of the recovery of the Irish property market. Recalling his and his brother Brian's experience of previous recessions in the UK, he said: "It took longer for a market to recover in the old days. I think the last big recession we went through was back in the late Eighties and early Nineties in London. You had negative equity well into the Nineties with high interest rates. We were paying 22 per cent for money.
"I remember at the time that the base interest rate was 18 per cent, three per cent was the margin and four per cent was the surcharge for being maybe 20 or 30 grand behind in your payments. Now there are people who are maybe €20m or €30m behind. It took a long time to get out of it then."
For the Comer brothers, there's no question that it also took hard work and plenty of it. "We went to London in 1984 when the Gallagher Group collapsed. We were plastering and building at that time.
"Our working day was 18 hours on average from when I left home first.
"We were plastering 14 flats a week where the average [work] gang does about one or two a week.
"My working day is different now of course but it's still probably 14 or 15 hours.
"But we don't call working in the office 'work'. I remember Brian saying to our bank manager in Finchley 'when we used to work', and the bank manager said 'so you don't consider what you do now as work?'.
"Brian said: 'The office? How could that be work?'."