Friday 19 January 2018

Return of the developers: The battle for Ballsbridge

After developers lost over €800m in Dublin 4 boom-time deals, this time around emotion has been removed from the equation

Developer Sean Dunne and his wife Gayle Killilea
Developer Sean Dunne and his wife Gayle Killilea
Developer Joe O'Reilly
Hume House in Ballsbridge, Dublin
Peter Flanagan

Peter Flanagan

It was one of the most exciting, and looking back now, one of the most ludicrous parts of the Celtic Tiger.

While lots of "ordinary" people were spending big money on houses and designer clothes, a group of developers seemed to be fighting it out for huge properties in the heart of Dublin 4.

Land in Ballsbridge - the leafiest of leafy suburbs in the capital - was at one point more expensive than top parts of London or New York, as people like Sean Dunne and Ray Grehan forked out hundreds of millions of euro for property there.

Except then the crash came, and land that in 2006 was worth €50m an acre, couldn't be sold for love nor money.

This week though, two of the biggest sites in the area - the former Berkeley Court and Jurys hotels, along with part of AIB's headquarters, have come close to changing hands.

A group led by Joe O'Reilly's Chartered Land is set to take control of the hotels, while Johnny Ronan is on the verge of buying the 3.7-acre site at AIB's Bankcentre.

An artist’s impression of what planning permission currently allows for on the site of the Berkeley Court and Jurys hotels
An artist’s impression of what planning permission currently allows for on the site of the Berkeley Court and Jurys hotels

Considering that taxpayers here and in the UK ended up paying for those boom-time deals, this week's activity begs the question: Are the prices paid reasonable, or will we end up looking back on them the way we look back on the previous "Battle for Ballsbridge"?

The short answer is that the deals being done today seem to be a lot healthier than those done a decade ago. Just compare them to what went on before.

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The boom saw plenty of excesses but none more so than what went on in Ballsbridge at the time.

Johnny Ronan
Johnny Ronan

In 2005 Sean Dunne paid €260m for Jurys Hotel. Infamously, he is reputed to have has asked his wife Gayle Killilea to "pick a number" when he was preparing his Jurys bid. That number seemed extraordinary at the time, and ludicrous today, but four of the other bids for the property were within €2m of what Dunne offered. He followed that up by buying the Berkeley Court Hotel next door for €119m.

Just up Shelbourne Road, another developer, Ray Grehan, doled out €171.5m for the former UCD Veterinary College. That site is just 2.1 acres in size.

A year later, Dunne went further, buying all of AIB's Bankcentre HQ for €368m. The front 3.7-acre portion cost him €200m. One of his spokesmen said the deal represented "good value".

Bernard McNamara had tried to buy the Jurys site. His bid was just €300,000 below Dunne's offer. But he would console himself by handing over €288m for the Burlington Hotel in Donnybrook in 2007.

The UCD Vetinary College in Ballsbridge, Dublin
The UCD Vetinary College in Ballsbridge, Dublin

Dunne wasn't finished though. He sealed his reputation as the Baron of Ballsbridge in 2006 when he engineered a deal to buy Hume House, a 1960s-era office block, for an estimated €160m. That deal worked out at an unreal €195m per acre - close to the most expensive in the world.

And yet it all came to naught. Nothing was built anywhere. Dunne tried and failed to get planning permission to build a 37-storey tower on the Jurys/Berkeley Court site. Ulster Bank took it over and agreed this week to sell it to Joe O'Reilly for €155m.

Johnny Ronan is paying Nama and Ulster Bank a little over €50m for the AIB site that cost Dunne €200m. The American investment group Blackstone bought the Burlington Hotel for €65m in 2012, and paid €100m for Hume House and two other office blocks. Two years ago the Galway natives Luke and Brian Comer bought the Veterinary College site for just €22m - an 88pc discount on what Ray Grehan paid for it. All in all more than €800m was lost on those six deals.

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So what happens now to these sites? Mr O'Reilly and his backers from the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority will likely redevelop the hotels. The site has planning permission for a new hotel and more than 500 apartments.

The Comers are building an office block on the Veterinary College site but construction has slowed in recent months.

Mr Ronan has a potential problem with the Bankcentre site. He is expected to build offices on it, but it does not have planning permission yet. Any attempt to build there will likely run into severe opposition from local residents, although Mr Ronan is a savvy operator.

Given the recovery in house prices in the Ballsbridge area - by and large they are close to their peak, why are commercial sites still so far off the Tiger?

The answer probably lies in the profile of today's buyer. Mr O'Reilly and Mr Ronan are both long-time developers here, but this time around they are financed by foreign investors rather than the banks.

Abu Dhabi backs Mr O'Reilly while Mr Ronan is backed by Dublin investment house Cardinal Capital. It in turn is working closely with US billionaire Wilbur Ross. Mr Ross is one of the most successful investors around. He made close to €500m on an investment in Bank of Ireland. Blackstone meanwhile is the biggest real estate investment firm in the world.

These guys have no attachment to a particular property. All they care about is if they will be able to make money out of it. In short, emotion has been removed from the sector. They feed all the numbers relating to a property - price, projected rent, cost of construction, cash flow etc - into a spreadsheet, and if the numbers add up, they buy it. If not, they move on. They don't allow themselves to get into a bidding war. They are willing to walk away.

It is perhaps this aspect that is most reassuring about the new Battle for Ballsbridge. It's no longer the "Property Game", as some builders liked to call it.

Instead it is what it always should have been: a business, like any other.

Irish Independent

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