DEBENHAMS, Cork City’s most iconic department store, has been launched on the market for €20m, more than two years after its closure dealt a crushing blow to the high street. A second former Debenham's store on Dublin's Henry Street has also been put up for sale for €55m.
Concept architects looked at possible future uses for both stores. In terms of the 150,000 sq ft Cork premises, on 1.32 acres, suggestions include developing a 220-bedroom hotel and 47 residential units on the site, while retaining a commercial section. Commercial real estate specialists Cushman & Wakefield have been appointed to handle the sales.
In terms of the St Patrick's Street store, the front portion of the building is likely to remain in frontline retail use, which is good news for shoppers, who might also expect to see the re-opening of the convenient pedestrian link between the former Debenhams store and the Merchants Quay Shopping Centre, which allowed easy circulation between Maylor Street, St Patrick Street and Merchants Quay.
Cushman & Wakefield said they had received “some interesting enquiries” from previous occupiers of the front section of the building which they envisage remaining in retail use, on the ground floor, and possibly the first floor.
Peter O’Flynn, Cushman & Wakefield managing director, Cork, said it was “really, really important” that retail returned to the front of the building for the commercial health of the city’s main street.
In terms of additional suggestions for the premises, another was for a Food Court and Entertainment Centre eg cinema, on the upper floors, which Mr O’Flynn said are suitable for use.
The commercial real estate firm has already had interest from a number of key developers, “both within and outside of Cork” . Expected in the mix are OCP (O’Callaghan Properties) JCD (John Cleary Developments) and the O’Flynn Group, all of whom have strong form in the city centre, producing high quality developments, with the O’Flynn Group currently active in the expansion of fast-fashion outlet Penneys, which now has control of an entire block of real estate on St Patrick Street. Clarendon Properties, owners of the adjoining Merchants Quay shopping mall, could also be in the mix, as the premises would represent a “natural extension” of the Merchants Quay building. Equally the owners of nearby Supervalu or the owners of the M & S building might seize the opportunity to expand.
Mr O’Flynn expects both local and overseas interest, from both investors and potential owner/occupiers. Immediately following the launch of the property to market, two enquiries came in, one investor, own occupier, both from overseas. Mr O’Flynn said: "We expect to see interest both from the Dublin market and overseas, because you are not going to get another building like this on Patrick Street. This is it.”
Mr O’Flynn said the suggestions for a hotel and residential units at the former Debenhams, which closed in 2020 with the loss of 700 jobs, were drawn up by a concept architect, but that a developer “might have a completely different idea” and that other possibilities included student accommodation and/or a higher number of residential units with possible involvement of an approved housing body or under a cost rental scheme.
However he believes the main front section of the building (back as far as where Caroline Street meets Maylor Street) would “stay intact” and continue in retail use, adding that “You could still be looking at an owner/occupier for that front portion of the building”. The front of the building is listed and cannot be interfered with and the stunning skylight is also listed. The beautiful copper dome is another key architectural feature.
In terms of redevelopment (eg hotel/apartments), Mr O’Flynn said that was more likely in the rear sections, “because you could get more height in the back buildings”.
Mr O’Flynn said the importance of the flagship building to St Patrick Street could not be underestimated. In addition, re-opening the front section for retail use would re-open “an important pedestrian link within this overall block, which Mr O’Flynn said “would be maintained by any new owners as the rights of way still exist and it is a natural fit”.
Asked how they arrived at the €20m price tag, Mr O’Flynn said they had looked at net yields for the front commercial section and the site value to the rear, before arriving at the figure. "We believe this is at a realistic level for an opportunity of this nature," he said.
The landmark four-floor premises, which has a high-profile corner position on the main street (running from 12-17 St Patrick Street) is the largest single retail shop in Munster. It dates to 1922, having been rebuilt post the burning of Cork city, only to close in the wake of another devastating event, the global pandemic. Owned by the Roche family (companies associated with the Roche family also own Henry Street), it underwent a comprehensive redevelopment in the late 1990s.
It was let by the Roche family to Debenhams, on a 25-year lease from 2006, but the St Patrick Street store, along with the retail giant’s Mahon Point Store (now let to Sports Direct upstairs, with House of Fraser due downstairs) and its Henry Street store, all closed in 2020. Following the appointment of Grant Thornton as receivers by the Bank of Ireland earlier this year, proposals were sought from estate agents vis-à-vis the best use of the building. Cushman & Wakefield was subsequently appointed to handle the sale.
The Roche family, who were previously reported to have property assets of €500m in Ireland and Britain, had very quietly put the building (excluding the main shopping mall, SuperValu section, and multi-storey carpark) up for sale four years ago, with an unconfirmed price of €70-€75m cited, for a 5% return.
After the market failed to bite, and as Debenhams’ woes continued, it’s understood Richard Roche and a team considered other routes, such as subdividing the front section, with private rented sector apartments and a hotel in other parts.