Douglas Village Shopping Centre which closed last August following a devastating fire is to re-open on November 12, in time for the crucial Christmas period for retailers.
The news will come as a huge relief not just to traders whose livelihoods suffered after their units closed on August 31 last, but also to other retailers in Douglas who saw a drop off in footfall to their premises with the loss of the centre’s multistorey carpark.
Consumers will welcome the opportunity to broaden their carparking and shopping options in the run-up to Christmas. Since the shopping centre closed, the village has been down approximately 1,000 car parking spaces, while 46 retail units were out of action, including the anchor tenant, retail giant Tesco.
Hopes that the centre would re-open this summer were dashed by the Covid-19 pandemic which forced the closure of construction sites across the country.
In line with government restrictions designed to halt the spread of the coronavirus, the main contractors, PJ Hegarty and Sons, were forced to shut down the Douglas site on March 27.
After an almost two month delay, work re-commenced on May 18 and this week, the Irish Examiner was given access to the site to see how work is progressing amid rigid Covid-19 protocols.
On site to show us around were Gearóid Walsh, contracts manager for PJ Hegarty and Bartosz Mieszala, shopping centre manager.
Mr Walsh says the target date for re-opening the centre is November 12, all going well.
“We’ve reviewed the schedule in the last two weeks since we came back and we've had discussions with all the subcontractors and everyone has bought into the new opening date of November 12.
“That’s what we are working towards, but that excludes any more government intervention and/or unforeseen things that we are finding quite regularly here.” The kind of “unforeseens” they’ve had to deal with to date are wide-ranging. For instance who could have predicted the two-week delay caused by “rubbernecking” as curious motorists flying by on the nearby N40 motorway craned to get a better look at the damaged shopping centre? It cost Hegarty €120,000 to address that problem.
“We had to put up a massive screen to shield the view of the project from the N40 flyover and that caused a two week delay at the start.
“With the attraction of the big Douglas fire, everyone was slowing down, so after consultation with an Garda Síochána, they asked us would we put up the screen.
“We got approval from the insurance company and then we built this €120,000 screen to stop people looking into the site,” Mr Walsh says.
The slow and complex process of removing dozens of cars stranded by the fire from the multi-storey carpark was another major headache. They had to be removed by remote controlled robot as workers could not go into the damaged carpark zone because of the risk of building collapse. The intense heat generated by the fire had caused steel structures to melt which in turn caused carpark floors to buckle “We had this specialist demolition machine called a Brokk,” says Mr Walsh.
The process involved first sending in a drone and then the Brokk operators - who were wearing virtual reality goggles linked to the drone - guided the Brokk in and used it to lift the cars onto a trailer while a robotic dumper towed the trailer out to a safe zone from where a crane could lift the cars off the building.
“We used a lot of modern technology to get the job done safely,” Mr Mieszala says.
“The whole idea with the robotic removal was the fear of collapse. They needed to get what they called the Vehicle of Interest (VoI, the car that caused the fire) out and they needed to get it out as intact as possible because they needed to do a full forensic investigation on it,” Mr Walsh says.
“That’s why we had to be so tentative with the removal of all the other vehicles because if the whole thing collapsed, they would have lost their [critical] piece.” When the VoI was brought out on top of a trailer, there were 24 forensic scientists from different insurance companies waiting to inspect it, Mr Walsh says.
Demolishing the frame and making the area safe for inspectors took about a month.
“The initial slowness of the project was due to insurers needing to painstakingly go through the VOI and the parking space where it happened, so major construction work couldn’t advance until they had all their evidence,” Mr Walsh says.
A third “unforeseen” was the discovery that units along one side of the shopping mall - the mid-section running from the BookStation down to Bresnan’s Butchers - would need substantial work..
“Initially we were only taking off the roof covering because we thought that was what was damaged but then subsequently we discovered the structure was compromised.
“So we’ve actually had to demolish all of those [units] and we have to rebuild them. This is all additional stuff we didn’t envisage. But now that we are back at work, it can run concurrently with the rest of the project,” Mr Walsh says.
Looking down from level one of the carpark at the affected units on the North Mall, all that is left at the moment is their facade. Their new roofs will have to be raised by 500mm to accommodate new steelwork.
“The units had false ceilings with old structures and we are taking those old structures out so the roof level is going up on the inside, but not on the outside,” Mr Walsh says.
The biggest headache of all however is down to the location of the fire itself which damaged less than 3% of the entire complex, although 12% of it has to be rebuilt. It was the perfect spot to cripple the functioning of the entire shopping centre.
“It seems like a small area but it is at the heart of the building and all the management systems are in that zone,” Mr Mieszala says.
This included the ESB substation which powered every single unit, which means every unit now has to be rewired, as well as the boiler room and the control room.
“The complete building management system was literally destroyed in the fire,” says Mr Walsh.
There was no possibility of re-opening the complex in sections, because the fire’s location meant they had lost the ramp into the carpark, as well as the power to the carpark, the source of heat and the back up generators.
“Even if it happened in another part of the carpark, we possibly would have been able to reopen it in sections, but because of the ramp and all of the services affected, we hadn’t a hope,” Mr Walsh says.
Demolition was substantially completed when Covid-19 struck. Just prior to Covid, Mr Mieszala says they had been meeting tenants “and everyone was very positive about coming back”.
“We had been discussing their fit-outs and how much time they would need prior to opening to do what they wanted to do. We had met about 95% of the tenants before the lockdown.” Back then, the hope was that they would re-open at the beginning of September.
Mr Mieszala says despite all the setbacks, there were a couple of positives along the way:
Falvey’s Pharmacy at the front of the centre and Plum nail bar were were able to get back up and running quickly. However they have lost the post office as tenants after it relocated to nearby Douglas Court Shopping Centre.
“Obviously it’s a huge loss for us but probably even more so for the whole community because we are at the heart of the village and the bus stops right outside. But I know the post office had to make a call,” Mr Mieszala says.
They have also lost the Focus Ireland charity shop Beloved, as it has ceased trading.
The good news though is that the library will be re-opening. A spokesperson for Cork City Council said its Douglas project team is currently purchasing stock and working on timeframes for reconstruction and fit out.
Mr Mieszala says Dennehy’s gym will also re-open.
Mr Walsh says they’ve given Tesco a date of 29 Sept “when they can come in with shop fitters for getting ready for their fit outs and M&S will probably be around a similar time”.
He says after the flood damage of 2012 - when a summer flash flood forced the closure of the complex for 10 days - Tesco brought in their crisis management team and did a very quick turnaround. He expects similar efficiencies this time around M&S has “a little more to do” to get ready as it lost its stores area in the fire. Its new upstairs expansion is intact. In fact all of the units between Puccini’s restaurant and M&S are intact, as well as TK Maxx and Starbucks, which are on the same end of the Mall.
Right now, the steelwork is almost complete and the actual re-build is underway. On the day we visited, steel structures underpinning the carpark floors were in place. In fact just 15m had separated the steel structures underpinning the floors on the day the site was locked down.
“We were that close to joining the two ends of the building when we had to stop,” Mr Walsh says.
When they did have to stop work late in March, they’d already begun addressing the Covid problem.
“We had been implementing measures two weeks before the shutdown, but we’ve driven on considerably and the work we’ve undertaken since is very visible,” Mr Walsh says.
The physical characteristics of the site - outdoor and substantial - means implementing Covid measures has been less of a challenge than the job of demolition.
Walking us through the one-way system installed throughout the site, Mr Walsh points out hand sanitation stations, as well as spray paint on walls displaying 2m distancing and floor tape indicating same. A cleaner sprays down handrails in a yard area which also houses a tool sanitation station.
“We have two full time cleaners on a constant rotation spraying down any surfaces like handrails, door handles, anything that anyone is touching,” Mr Walsh says.
They have up to 10 green-vest “Covid Marshalls” making sure everyone is adhering to protocols including when using toilet facilities, handwashing and using the canteen. An overflow canteen area that looks like a Leaving Certificate exam hall is set up at the undamaged Tesco end of the Mall.
They haven’t had to stagger starting times because of the long lead-in area to the site via the only access gate at the southern entrance of the shopping centre, off Church St. They’ve temporarily dispensed with their biometric thumbprint sign-in using a tick-box sheet instead where security at the gate has a list of everyone’s names.
Concerns about building workers travelling together and sitting together in vans at lunchtime don’t arise, Mr Walsh says, as it’s permitted only where the workers share accommodation.
If they leave the site at lunchtime, they have to leave their personal protective equipment (PPE) behind. There are currently around 80 workers on site.
So far, Covid protocols don’t appear to have slowed down construction work, albeit Mr Walsh says it’s hard to gauge in the space of two weeks.
“We haven’t really seen it with what we are doing at the moment [concrete works and structural steelwork] because social distancing is possible.
“Where we will probably see it is when the service trades come in.
“The numbers will increase considerably then because there could be 40 electricians, 20 plumbers or mechanical fitters, that kind of thing. But at the moment it’s just concrete works and structural steelwork and fitting a sprinkler system (This is a new addition to the carpark levels, previously just the ground floor and mezzanine level had a sprinkler system).
“As soon as we get into the fit out, the numbers will increase. There could be anything up to 130-140 on site, probably by the end of July.” Mr Walsh says.
While it’s a challenging site to work on, Mr Walsh has had tricker projects, including London’s Paddington Station, in his pre-Hegarty career.
“That was a fair headache working on railways in a live environment. But in terms of managing people’s expectations, the local community’s expectations, this one is pretty challenging.
“I would say the biggest issue we are dealing with is people’s disappointment.” Mr Mieszala, centre manager for more than a decade, says it had grown into “a fabulous set-up” before the fire.
“We want it to come back stronger than ever and everyone is asking when. When this all ends, we will be there, better than ever.”