herald

Friday 9 December 2016

Sinead Ryan: 'Town' is no longer a mecca for shoppers, but is it any wonder?

Boyers department store on Dublin’s North Earl Street is to close
Boyers department store on Dublin’s North Earl Street is to close

The 83 workers at Boyers who are about to lose their jobs were reported to be 'shocked' at the announcement of the store's closure.

But while this is clearly distressing for staff, some of whom have 40 years' service, can it really be a shock?

After all, we've been witnessing the demise of Dublin city centre - or 'town', as it's known to Dubs - as a traditional shopping area for years.

The generation of Dubliners whose Saturday afternoons wouldn't be complete without a visit to Henry Street, O'Connell Street or Grafton Street, stopping along the way to buy everything from tea towels to a new dress -now find fewer places where they can enjoy the ramble, the chat, the stopping off and the joy that a wander around a compact city can bring.

In the last decade or so the city centre has become rushed and inconvenient, with a 'get-in-get-out' atmosphere, don't you think?

When Clerys closed recently (and let's hope Boyers' staff are treated a damn sight better), many saw it as a Rubicon of sorts.

But really, Clerys was just the latest of our old department stores to have fallen foul of the internet or giant suburban shopping centres, with their free parking and myriad shops and restaurants.

Why battle for parking in the city centre, searching for coins, when you can sail into one of Blanchardstown Shopping Centre's 7,000 parking places for nothing?

Why pay €3 an hour in Dawson Street car park when Liffey Valley has 3,500 slots for free for the whole day?

And yet many would argue that the very vibrancy of city shopping is missing in those places, with their anonymous, 'high street' stores.

Go to a outer shopping centre and you expect to be able to find Next, Monsoon, Debenhams, M&S, Dunnes, or their equivalents. You expect that you won't have to walk more than 10 minutes to get to them all.

soulless

But while such retail centres can be efficient in this manner, they can also be soulless.

That said, is our city centre now in danger of becoming the same?

O'Connell Street is the country's primary thoroughfare, our Champs-Elysée, witness to everything from genteel Georgian times to the Lockout to the 1916 Rising.

But it is no longer the preserve of ladies' hat shops, discreet jewellers or bespoke tailoring stores.

No, it's dominated by fast food joints, cheap Euro shops and brash touristy outlets. Daniel O'Connell, the great Liberator, stands presiding over it all - would he be pleased by what was liberated in his name, or is he spinning in his grave?

And of course, in many parts of the city centre you'll find a special kind of 21st century customer - a heroin addict shooting up. Or a beggar hassling you for change, or a street argument between winos. No wonder many prefer the safety of the security-patrolled shopping centres.

It's a great shame. Can big department stores continue to thrive in the city centre? Certainly Arnott's, BTs and others, by constantly adapting, do.

But new plans by Dublin City Council to restrict traffic even more won't help. A recent Red C poll (undertaken by the car park lobby) found that 60pc of shoppers claimed they would no longer drive into town if the driving restrictions came into force.

The powers-that-be say pedestrianisation rejuvenates cities, and for those like me who remember when Grafton Street had traffic, there's no comparison with today when you can wander down listening to buskers ply their trade, stop in the middle of the road to buy flowers, or read a special offer on a shop window.

But public transport instead of cars? Despite our shiny Luas and our better-then-they-used-to-be buses, many people still can't move around without a car to get to where they need to be.

We can't all hop on a bike, or lug around children and shopping on a double-decker - it's simply too stressful.

Those of us who pay a fortune to run a car want to be able to use it when we need to. Perhaps the entire city needs an overhaul, with the transport needs of all its citizens firmly in mind.

Until that happens we can expect see more casualties like Boyers.

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