CNBC European Business Magazine, June 8, 2012
It missed out on Ireland’s property boom, but now a cluster of IT start-ups is bringing the area to life
DUBLIN—Dublin is a pretty city with no shortage of historic architecture. Mind-blowing though, it is not.
While other European capitals boomed, it was mired in an economic slump until the late 90s. In fact, the main reason so much of it remains intact is that when other cities were reinventing themselves in steel and glass, Dublin was broke.
Things did change. Ireland’s notorious property boom and bust certainly transformed the city, partly for the better and partly for the worse, but the development was uneven.
Located less than a kilometre from Dublin Castle, Thomas Street – the heart of the Liberties district – is an area right in the city centre that missed out on the billions that poured into buildings between 1996 and 2007.
Yet, in today’s straitened climate it is developing a reputation as a creative centre, particularly in mobile app and social media development.
Property prices in the surrounding area run the gamut, with two-bed apartments as low as €100,000 and as high as €400,000. The variation can be explained by differences in quality, but also the fact that the Irish market is in a state of flux, with prices down as much as 70% on their 2007 highs.
Other signs of life are encouraging. Central to the area’s growth is new media, which has produced success stories such as Gala Games, Havok, animators Kavaleer, PopCap Games, Amazon and others. Some 70 domestic and foreign businesses, mostly start-ups, cluster together in the Digital Hub, in four buildings set on nine acres of land. Founded in 2003 as a state agency with a remit to attract businesses in digital media and content, the hub was an immediate success, but was let down by the general condition of the commercial buildings in the area.
“We have 110,000ft2 (10,200m2) of office space and it’s been over 90% occupied from the beginning,” says Digital Hub CEO Philip Flynn. “It’s a really dynamic sector of the economy.”
Ralph Croly is a founder of BitSmith Games, a software developer working on an iPad game called Kú. He and his colleagues were attracted by office space costing €15/ft2 (€161/m2), the chance to be near other start-ups and fibre-optic internet access. “The area is a bit rough around the edges but there’s no trouble or anything like that,” he says. “It’s exciting and there’s loads of intensity.”
It’s plain that the area is improving. Chic cafés have appeared serving the social media classes, while the area’s central location contributes to its desirability. This being Ireland, pubs are common. More than that, though, the area is home to St James’s Gate, the home of Guinness, and many of the buildings being reclaimed for start-up use were formerly parts of the brewery. Guinness is still there, but modern industrial techniques mean that it needs less space. The star of the show is its seventh-floor Gravity Bar, with a commanding 360-degree view of the whole city.
Also on Thomas Street, and feeding into the growing creative industry, is the National College of Art and Design, Ireland’s pre-eminent art school. The Irish Museum of Modern Art, on the site of the old Royal Hospital, is a stone’s throw away, as is Kilmainham Gaol, a key historical site in Ireland’s 20th-century fight for independence from Britain.
The uneasy combination of blight and bustling creative activity has not gone unnoticed. National tourist agency Fáilte Ireland is planning a heritage trail running from Trinity College to both the Royal Hospital and the jail in Kilmainham. The route will run the length of Thomas Street, so improvements will be essential.
In April, Dublin Civic Trust unveiled a plan to redevelop the area, stripping away the rot and exposing the pre-Georgian architecture of what is one of Dublin’s oldest streets. “There’s quite a concentration of protected buildings on the street, plus it’s an architectural conservation area,” says its spokesperson, Graham Hickey.
The trust hopes to attract private investment to lift the area without repeating the mistakes on display in other districts: artless apartment blocks, faux-historic pastiche and buildings out of scale with their neighbours.
As Hickey says: “We’re lucky, in a way, that Thomas Street wasn’t touched during the boom.” Jason Walsh
CNBC European Business