Friday 20 October 2017

Home truths: Why the smart cookies get in before the buskers

Bedsit city: Run-down Rathmines Main Street, Dublin 6, with its elegant Town Hall clock has all its gentrification lights flashing
Bedsit city: Run-down Rathmines Main Street, Dublin 6, with its elegant Town Hall clock has all its gentrification lights flashing
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

The busker perches on the monument's base plinth and lifts a guitar out of its case. After a few tuning strums, he kicks off into a stirring ballad that rings through the street.

Within minutes, he has been surrounded by four dancing street drunks whooping, clapping hands and spilling lager from their cans. The passing groups of tourists he'd hoped to serenade start a wide detour around the scene - along with most passers-by. One of the drunks places a hand on his shoulder to tell him the thing about music.

For this particular location in Dublin 1, it's just a wee bit too early for busking. He should come back about half-past-2019. But while he might be early, this songbird has definitely cottoned on to something in the air.

Because in 2017 it's perfect around here for smart developers and property investors. The streets have seen robust pubs changing hands - erasing traditional Irish names and re-emerging with minimalist single-syllable monikers and gin menus - while others have had a serious scrub-up and revised their admissions policies.

Tourists are sauntering through. The proximity of the resurgent IFSC has seen discerning suits cross over to experience a bit of 'authentic', and the odd eclectic coffee shop has opened. Sitting outside is being encouraged in safer spots. New apartments are rising and bedsit buildings are selling - albeit for some of the lowest per-square-foot prices in the capital. The first nervous hipster was spotted wandering about and the ice-cream vans are selling ice-cream.

We are beginning the 'boho' phase - the early stages of gentrification. The shrewdest property investors are those most adept at understanding its early creeping rhythms. Property prices across neighbourhoods usually rise and fall in line - with slight differences emerging gradually over many years; but the biggest earners in the property game get stuck in early to a locale which is about to leap up in value suddenly ahead of the posse.

If you're not an investor, but plan to become a homeowner, it's a good idea to learn their knack of gentrification harvesting. Because when you choose well and your home increases faster than others, you end up with more for less, and your position for trading up or down becomes a good deal stronger.

The first rule is that it happens suddenly - usually when a point of critical mass is reached.

Often, gentrification is kicked off by an economic anomaly - like the current surging rental market, which has forcibly dragged middle earners by their wallets into less salubrious but central areas in search of affordable rents. Dublin 1 is experiencing this. Cork city centre's brown-brick terraces have already lifted off on the back of this, and Limerick city centre's are about to.

At other times, gentrification is project-projected - kicked off by a big new hospital, college or transport link - like the Luas. Cabra and Phibsborough in Dublin always had a certain cachet but are also dingy around the edges. The dual landing of the DIT Grangegorman campus - one of Ireland's biggest - and the pending completion of the Luas links combined with the outlawing of bedsits will ensure that this pocket is set to see values surge in the years ahead. The crafty buyers already picked up two-storey-over-basement 5,000 sq ft bedsit houses for €390,000 three years ago. It is possible that the aforementioned D7 pockets will see prices rise a third above the market when the Luas project has been finished and wealthier buyers have moved in to take advantage. Nearby Stoneybatter is halfway there already. The early bird gentrification harvesters are now mooching in Dublin 1 and watch what happens to the Liffeyside D2 hub of ruined dinginess around Johnny Ronan's new tower block.

Sometimes it's a big new employer - like how Microsoft's arrival in the Sandyford Industrial Estate in the 1980s caused synergy that transformed it into an 'office campus'. Sometimes areas are just too well located to be ignored when the economic pull kicks in and they begin to lift. Take Rathmines in Dublin 6 - long the tatty twin of thoroughly gentrified Ranelagh. Rathmines has flagged for two decades. Shops went; pubs slowed; its clubs and college closed. But gentrification lightbulbs have flickered on everywhere lately, as skyrocketing rents increased the numbers of better off tenants. Rathmines is full of run-down buildings stuffed with illegal bedsits - perfect fodder for developers and wealthy families seeking private houses.

The first bulb to flicker on was a branch of the upmarket burger chain JoBurger. Now the board is blinking. The Swan Centre is being revamped; the Bowery, a fashionable music venue, has opened; the old Stella Cinema is becoming a cinema cocktail bar, and construction is under way of a Fallon & Byrne, the upmarket grocery, restaurant and wine bar.

Some say gentrification is a form of class purging. It is an organic process, as money follows opportunity, and it does facilitate badly needed regeneration. And locals don't have to cash in their chips and move out when the hipsters land. But if you want to make a real killing from gentrification's wonder walls, you do need to get in ahead of the buskers.

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