The property mogul wants the Liffey Street area to rival the Southside's Creative Quarter...
Galway-born solicitor and developer Noel Smyth has revealed his ambitions to rejuvenate Dublin's north inner city, populating the area around Liffey Street with cafés, restaurants and more to give that side of the river its own Creative Quarter equivalent.
Speaking on Breakfast Business just over a year since his Fitzwilliam company sold Arnotts to the Selfridges group, Smyth said:
"We're in the process at the moment... of basically taking a good look at this overall part of the city."
He noted that, compared the six or seven million square feet of retail and associated businesses that have sprung up in the county of Dublin over the past quarter century – beginning with his involvement in The Square Tallaght – the city centre itself has been neglected development-wise.
"On the one side you've got Temple Bar which is a huge tourist attraction... and then on the other side you've got probably the best retail street in Ireland in the form of Henry Street, where they estimate there's probably 30 million people going through it per annum.
"Why haven't we got something that accommodates people after seven o'clock in the evening? So that's where we're focusing at the moment."
"Pubs are a thing of the past in many ways," he continued. "What you're now looking at is 'where do you put the living heart back into the city?' And the living heart is people."
Smyth made the case that tourists and younger people would love to have "the same opportunity" that they currently have on the Southside, where "when they finish shopping on Grafton Street, they now walk over to Wicklow Street, you've got South William Street, you've got that whole little quarter."
The idea will be different from the defunct 'Northern Quarter' project, which would have involved "knocking down Arnotts completely and building a huge new retail hub".
"Why would you knock down a store that's 150 years old, fantastically successful, now run by probably the best professional retailers in the British Isles if not elsewhere?
"That's our anchor, so know we should be able to feed off that to make sure what we develop is not trying to compete with something that we wouldn't be able to do in any event, and instead go for something that we believe [in]."
Street busker Declan Walsh plays the spoons beside the statues on Dublin's Liffey Street. Picture by Julien Behal PA Archive/PA Images
Currently, Smyth is looking at the project with architects, and has had no shortage of potential operators contacting him. Kieran Mulvey, the former head of the Workplace Relations Commission, has been his "go-to go-between" in Dublin 1.
"I'm hoping that by Quarter 2 next year, we will have... finished off what we have effectively planned to do. We are very excited by the project, we think there's a huge amount of interested people wanting to come back into the city.
"Everybody tells us, and we miss it, that this is a medieval city divided by a fabulous river, and why is there a divide between the north and the south?
"Well there is, but we've got to get the people from the south come through the Ha'penny Bridge into what we see as a fabulous [project]."
Asked about whether he was intrigued by the upcoming Clerys redevelopment, which should increase footfall on the Northside, he said:
"I'm always loathe to talk about Clerys for the simple reason that it's too easy to have a potshot at another developer... I think it's up to Clerys to work out where they're going themselves."
As part of his own plans, Smyth is aiming to get young people from the north inner city itself involved. He was inspired in this regard by former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam who had enlisted business leaders help to give the underprivileged a leg-up in the late '90s.
"Mo Mowlam, Lord have mercy on her, basically called us in and said 'look, we need for business people to give their input into making sure that if we want to get the peace, we have to get the business'. And therefore she invited us to give internships to young prisoners that were coming out Long Kesh, The Maze and whatever.
"What we were asked to do, and did effectively, was to give people the opportunity to come in and see how businesses were working. And we came across some really smart people...
"Now I'm not comparing the north inner city to that, by any means... But people who haven't been given the same chance as other people, either through the education system or whatever. They have fantastic skills, they know the city very well, and often have really good raw talent.
"We're saying that in the north inner city itself, it's about four blocks away from the IFSC. It's a huge untapped part of the city."
Smyth also said that he was approaching not just business people, but the likes of NAMA and the Catholic Church to see if they will use their resources to help turn the north inner city around.
"If you had people with commitment and ideas," he concluded, "you could actually change the north inner city and therefore give people a better chance."