Sunday 18 February 2018

The glory days of Grafton Street -- and why they could be coming back again

John Meagher

John Meagher

It was once seen as an inauspicious laneway in the then unfashionable southside of Dublin, but more than 300 years later Grafton Street has consolidated its status as one of the most expensive streets on the planet.

This week, global property consultancy Collier's International reported it as the sixth dearest for commercial rents -- putting it ahead of such notoriously pricey cities as Hong Kong and Tokyo.

And despite a downturn in the economy, rents are set to increase even further. It was reported earlier this year that Bewley's Café is facing a rent rise of 93pc from €750,000 to almost €1,475,000 a year, while McDonald's is facing a staggered increase of 120pc -- from €520,000 to more than €1.1 million.

The street -- which is 300 years old this year -- has been a key feature of Dublin life for generations. But despite its lofty status for commanding huge rents, the Grafton Street of 2008 has its fair share of critics.

"It has the reputation, but not the reality, of a premier shopping street, despite the high rents," says historian and writer Pat Liddy., who's acknowledged as a leading expert on the city. "It's a shadow of its former self. There's a tackiness to it that does it no favours at all."

An Taisce's heritage officer Ian Lumley is just as disillusioned. "For the past 15 years or so, it's resembled a typical British high street. Not only does it have the same shops, but also the same window displays. And at the moment, the only thing noteworthy about Grafton Street is the number of mobile phone shops there."

It seems a far cry from the song popularised by the actor Noel Purcell in the 1960s with the line "Grafton Street's a wonderland with magic in the air". And yet the street has never been as popular -- footfall is at an all-time high, particularly among young people.

The street was established in 1708 by the Dawsons -- one of Dublin's wealthiest families -- and named after Henry Fitzroy, the first Duke of Grafton. A laneway had existed there for at least 100 years before but it frequently got flooded when the Liffey burst its banks.

Within 20 years, the street had been transformed into one of the most desirable residences in the city and remained a popular locale for the well-to-do for the reminder of the 18th century.

The construction of the Carlisle Bridge (now O'Connell Bridge) in 1794, opened up the city like never before, and Dublin experienced something of a shopping boom with Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) and Grafton Street becoming the most attractive destinations for merchants to sell their wares.

By 1838, when Switzer's opened, Grafton Street was booming. Eleven years later, Brown Thomas opened its doors for the first time and both it and Switzer's would develop into large department stores that helped make the street famous outside Ireland.

Weir's jewellers arrived in 1869."It was a magnet for the well-to-do at the time," says Pat. "It was unquestionably the street to go to get the best-quality goods."

Its status as the playground -- as well as shopping magnet -- for the country's Anglo-Irish ascendancy existed well into the 20th century. In 1911, thousands turned out to greet King George V and Queen Mary, who were led in a procession down Grafton Street by the Eighth Royal Hussars. The street was bedecked in expensive bunting with the Union Flag flying from every shop. Its complexion changed somewhat in 1914 with the arrival of the cheap American chain store, Woolworth's, making Grafton Street a place where Dublin's less well off could afford to buy, rather than just window shop.

And the arrival in 1927 of Bewley's -- already a Dublin institution thanks to its cafes on South Great George's Street and Westmoreland Street -- helped seal Grafton Street's place in the hearts of the city's people.

Liddy reckons the city's 20th century heyday was the 1950s, when the street wasn't yet choked with cars and a huge range of indigenous stores such as Cavendish's lured the well off, while amenities such as the Grafton Cinema ensured that the street was busy at all hours.

But Grafton Street was not immune to harsh times. Brown Thomas faced closure in the 1960s and survived thanks to a 1971 buy-out from Canadian millionaire Galen Weston and his Dublin-born wife Hilary.

The arrival of McDonald's in 1977 -- the first Irish location for the fast-food giant -- was seen as a significant social event at the time. Ian Lumley believes McDonald's helped transform the street into the chain-store haven it is today. "It certainly opened the door to multi-national companies, which helped squeeze out the local businesses."

The British chain-store invasion was spearheaded by HMV in 1986 and within years UK high street names such as Miss Selfridge, Next and River Island had set up shop as the pension trust fund companies -- who had bought up most of the street -- sought to make their investment pay.

The street was pedestrianised in 1979 amid protests from some tenants and was seen as a failure initially. The benefits of a car-free zone were reaped only in the mid-1980s when paving was introduced. The distinctive red paving only runs from Stephen's Green to Nassau Street -- and the remaining 100 metres or so which stretches as far as Foxes' tobacco shop opposite Trinity remains in use for cars. "I'm still surprised by the number of people who don't realise that part is also part of Grafton Street," Liddy says.

Since pedestrianisation, the most significant occurrence has been the acquisition of Switzer's by Brown Thomas, which resulted in BTs moving into Switzer's old building in 1995 and selling its former site to Marks & Spencer. Even today, M&S is continuing to develop the site and a roof-top restaurant will open later this summer.

What next for Grafton Street? John Graby of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland believes sky-high rents will continue to prohibit local operators from setting up on Grafton Street and notes with interest that the parallel South William Street has become the place to go for quirky Irish boutiques and indigenous shops.

Liddy thinks Grafton Street's original flavour will be restored when the proposed multi-billion euro development around O'Connell Street and Moore Street is built.

"The big names will move in there and Grafton Street's rents will come down, making it a possibility for the sort of shops that once existed there to set up home," he confidently predicts.

Lumley says it is crucial that Dublin City Council slap special planning laws on the street, making it impossible for "low-rent" outlets to base themselves there. "The street badly needs to be rejuvenated," he says. "It's not at its best right now."

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