David Conway hopes he won’t get into trouble for saying so, but Covid-19 has, he believes, been beneficial for the regions.
“Without a shadow of a doubt. At the beginning of Covid, I was talking to estate agents and what they were seeing was people returning from abroad.
“Now they are returning from Dublin to Limerick. We are seeing a can-do attitude.”
Moreover, the research is showing people’s priorities are changing, he says. While job security and salary were the holy grail of employment, now it’s an overwhelming desire for greater work-life balance.
All of this plays into the move towards the regions, out of the Dublin rat-race, where accommodation costs and availability are such a problem (a caller to a recent Liveline Show on RTÉ reported additional “pet charges” of €75 extra per month per cat) that it’s almost not worth it to work in the Capital.
It’s the kind of challenge wanna-be-working-mums have faced for aeons, forced to stay home by prohibitive creche costs, except now the problem is everyone’s, with renters and house buyers simply priced out of the Dublin market.
And so when Covid came along, and with it, remote working, people saw an escape route.
Here was an opportunity to relocate to where accommodation was more affordable and to put an end to the joyless, daily gridlock of the M50, where traffic volumes are now so acute that €50m is to be spent on creating Ireland’s first “ “managed motorway”.
Limerick is one of the cities to benefit from this exodus from the Capital, based on what estate agents are saying. And why wouldn’t it, given the level of development planned, unprecedented in the Treaty City’s history?
A number of agencies are at work in driving this change and looming large is Limerick Twenty Thirty DAC (LTT), a special purpose vehicle set up in 2016 by the amalgamated Limerick City and County Council, and tasked with delivering the single largest programme of investment and building in real estate outside of Dublin over the next decade, with David Conway at the helm as CEO.
“What I am always trying to do is to create quality environments for other facilitates to happen,” he says, and he has vast experience to draw on, having been project manager, director of operations and CEO of the National Sports Campus for more than 15 years, as well as overseeing the the construction and opening of the National Aquatic Centre in 2003.
“In sport, you see coaches come and go, but if we can give people the best environment possible, they will stay,” he says.
And so they are endeavouring to do so, picking key strategic sites in Limerick and driving development across those. A notable success is the multi-award winning €17.6m Gardens International office development on a 0.6 site which was once home to the early 19th century Roches Hanging Garden and Mercantile Building, later the GPO.
Consisting of 112,000 sq ft of LEED Gold Grade A office accommodation, it’s fully tenanted, with most of the space on long lease to Nordic Aviation Capital, the largest regional aircraft lessor in the world.
It was LTT’s first major build - which it started in 2017 - and Mr Conway said it spoke volumes about the standard being delivered by the LTT when it managed to attract an elite international tenant.
The site had stood half built for almost a decade after a private developer was hit by the economic crash.
Limerick-based Tom Crosse of GVM Auctioneers, who is also president of the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers (IPAV), says Gardens International has been “ a big success”.
He also believes that despite dire predictions that demand for office space “would fall out of the sky” when Covid arrived, this hasn’t in fact materialised.
The likes of Gardens International is commanding €32 per square foot, he says, while Georgian buildings in the city are renting for around €10 per sq ft. Out in the peripheral business parks in the likes of Castletroy and Raheen, rent is at circa €20 per sq ft, compared to about half that last year, he adds.
“When Covid kicked off, the week of Cheltenham, I was asked for six deposits back, both residential and commercial. Everyone anticipated the market would collapse. That hasn’t happened,” Mr Crosse says.
In saying that, a Cushman & Wakefield report for Q3 2021 shows an annual decline of 16% in the take up of office accommodation in Limerick.
Like other regions, activity was limited at the start of the year when Ireland re-entered level 5 lockdown, but picked up again once we re-opened. The report says 7,450 sq ft was occupied in the nine months to Q3, with more than half of that space taken in the city centre, 40% in the suburbs and just 4% in the Shannon Free Zone.
The area of greatest demand at the moment is industrial “the real winner”, according to Mr Crosse, who says demand for warehouses is massive.
“Villages and towns that had empty warehouses are pretty much full, driven by things like online shopping.
“The problem is they cost about €100 per sq ft to build and the rent is only about €5 per sq ft, so it doesn’t stack up to build them, so everything is being pushed out to rural areas and anywhere with a shed is almost full.
“People are even looking to park stuff in farmyards. But in time, developers will see that the demand for warehousing is enormous,” Mr Crosse says.
He’s also seeing people looking to relocate from Dublin in search of cheaper housing; he’s seeing huge increases in what people are prepared to pay for agricultural land and he’s noting a strong recovery in the price of development land.
“We had an auction last month and we sold 79 acres (of agricultural land in Crecora) for €1.42m. That’s €18,000 an acre. We had nine bidders, both online and in the room. A year ago, that would have gone for €11,000-€13,000 an acre.
The IPAV president is very hopeful about Limerick’s future “there’s great positivity emerging”, but he still has concerns about the city centre where he says “retail is weak, with the exception of BTs”.
“The big problem is with The Crescent (Shopping Centre). That’s where they all go, to Dooradoyle, and that costs the city. In saying that great efforts were made this year to attract people in, with lots of street entertainment. But we need a little more happening.”
To be fair, there is loads in the pipeline for the city centre but not a lot that can happen overnight. The Land Development Agency (LDA) has prodigiously ambitious plans for the city, with implementation to take place over the next 20 years. Their focus is on a 69.5ha site on lands around Colbert Station, where 47ha of development space is available.
If what they are proposing pans out - their draft spatial framework is currently out to public consultation - the city will gain a whole new quarter (The Colbert Quarter) and within that, eight distinctive districts on mainly public land, large areas of which are currently either inaccessible or underutilised.
Alan Kelly, LDA development manager and Dearbhla Lawson, LDA head of strategic planning, says the feedback to date in relation to the draft framework is “largely positive and supportive of its visions and aspirations”, with the caveat that they haven’t analysed it in minute detail yet.
Ms Lawson says people “love the vision” but want to know “what are you going to deliver” and so the framework sets out the aims for each of the eight districts, with a key challenge being how to overcome existing infrastructure to create individual districts and then connect them all back up.
All of the districts will be mixed-use, with varying prominence given to commercial/residential/student accommodation and education/ healthcare/sport and leisure/retail in individual districts, but with development in each district underpinned by a network of new and improved links (walkways, cycleways) to improve sustainable and active travel and to better connect new and existing communities.
The vision also includes making sure all residents have access to green space and an improved public realm, within sustainable neighbourhoods, with affordable housing for both new and existing residents.
Ms Lawson says ultimately the aim is to create a “15 minute city” where everyone is able to meet their basic needs close to home, including employment opportunities, rather than having to travel to outlying business parks.
Mr Conway says he believes the LDA will be a “great asset” to the city and that LTT will help in any way it can.
In the meantime, LTT is driving ahead with its own projects, including the mixed-use development of the Cleeves Riverside Quarter, a project with an estimated cost of up to €300m which will take seven years to deliver and involves the transformation of 10 acres on the northside of the Shannon on a site synonymous with its red-brick chimney stack.
On the river’s southside, a c€200m development is underway at the 3.7 acre Opera site, which, when fully developed, should be capable of employing up to 3,000 people across a 450,000 sq ft campus, operating by day as an employment hub and by night as a night time “destination”, with restaurant, bars and open spaces.
The LTT says Opera Square will be “transformational” for Limerick city, and will act as a catalyst for further major city centre investment. It’s the single biggest commercial property programme investment in Limerick and the largest ever outside of Dublin.
Contractors Sisk estimate the programme will take six years to complete and among the key elements will be 14-storey landmark office space building; a five-storey aparthotel with 13 separate apartments and retail on ground and basement levels; a 4-6-storey over-basement building with office space, retail and restaurant/café; a new state-of-the-art library plus significant public realm.
Other improvements are planned too including:
- the development of five suburban rail lines out of Colbert Station described as a potential “game-changer” for the region
- the revitalisation of the city centre through €46.2m made available under the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund, with some earmarked for the Living Limerick City Centre Initiative, which aims to renew derelict Georgian buildings, and more of the money going towards supporting the development of a digital innovation campus to attract innovators and create employment in the city centre.
Another planned development, a council project, is a world-class waterfront along the River Shannon close to the city centre, taking in the Cleeves Riverside Quarter, and also the building of new pedestrian bridges and waterfront infrastructural works.
Work to promote the region as a location for international investment is also underway at Fine Grain Property, a commercial real estate company which sees Limerick as primed for property investment.
Colin MacDonald, CEO of Fine Grain Property, said: "We seek to champion Ireland as a location for multinational investment by providing facilities to attract some of the most promising industries to our shores – including ICT, life sciences, financial services and other highly skilled sectors."
Plassey Business Campus, Fine Grain’s premier workplace community, sits in the National Technology Park next to the University of Limerick (UL), and offers more than 200,000 sq ft of modern, high-quality offices. The international business community at Plassey includes Northern Trust, Xperi, Cook Medical, Kneat Software, QAD, Icon and Legato.
All in all, there’s no doubting what Mr Conway said at the outset: He is definitely seeing “a can-do attitude” in Limerick.