The story behind Bray's two-decade wait for a controversial shopping centre

The €25 million Florentine Shopping Centre was recently put out to tender.

By Conor McMahon Reporter, Fora

THE LONG OVERDUE Florentine Shopping Centre in Bray has taken another step in its painful journey to finally being built – although the tills won’t be ringing for a while yet.

The main-street site has been left vacant for more than two decades after a series of failed attempts to develop the plot of land into a major retail destination.

Wicklow County Council in recent weeks put out a tender for the contract to oversee the design and development of the proposed shopping centre. It will start sifting through applications after 28 June.

It was thought that a development partner would be appointed at this stage, but one local councillor told Fora that the project is still on track.

With that in mind, here’s a potted history of the Florentine Shopping Centre – and the latest developments in the long-delayed project.

bray shopping centre A mock-up of the site
Source: Savills

First setbacks

Located between Bray’s main street and Eglinton Road, the site for the Florentine centre has been the subject of a number of retail-led developments for two decades.

Property developers Ballymore first looked for planning permission to build a IR£19 million shopping centre in 1997. At that stage, the company had assembled the site from 10 different owners over a three-year period.

According to an Irish Times report from the time, Ballymore’s then commercial director, Ray Hardy, said that he had received inquiries from a large number of UK retailers even before the project was given the green light.

He told the newspaper that the company was planning to turn the Bray shopping centre into a “destination” that would attract shoppers from Wexford and south Dublin, as well as other parts of north Wicklow.

Wicklow County Council went on to grant permission for the large development, which at the time promised about 9,000 sq ft of shop space on two floors and a 500-space car park.

Although it was on the winning side of an appeal to An Bord Pleanála, Ballymore decided to renew its planning application in 1998 after acquiring other properties near the site. That heralded the start of a period of setbacks and planning hurdles.

Financial woes

Nevertheless, by early 2003 the centre was give the go-ahead. According to a report in the Bray People newspaper, the deal was renegotiated that same year, with the two sides signing off on an agreement that the project would be completed within 18 months or the developers would have to pay ‘a huge financial penalty’.

By 2004, a preliminary site investigation was underway, with Marks & Spencer, Supervalu and Tesco among the retailers rumoured to be pitching to become the anchor tenants.

Morrisons supermarket stock A supermarket shopper
Source: Jon Super/PA Wire/PA Images

A report in the Irish Times said the centre would “fill an important gap in the local retail market, where fashion traders find it impossible to get good-sized shops”.

However, later that year, the developers were threatened with legal action from a local business owner over sewer works.

While the dispute was settled, Ballymore decided not to push ahead yet – instead submitting another planning application.

A ‘new and improved’ Florentine Centre was promised for autumn 2006 but was stopped in its tracks after a number of objections from locals. The developers had by then acquired another piece of land that could have further increased the size of the project.

Planning permission was granted to build a shopping centre to the tune of €100 million – but that momentum was stopped in its tracks with the onset of the credit crunch.

In 2013, Florentine Properties Ltd – the company controlled by Ballymore – went into receivership after racking up debts of €23 million. Later that year, Bray Town Council bought the site for just under €2 million.

SONY DSC Bray Town
Source: William Murphy/Flickr

What’s the latest?

After years of the land being partially used as a car park, hopes of getting the Florentine Shopping Centre over the line were reignited last year when Wicklow County Council submitted a planning application to An Bord Pleanála.

The application was approved in January and, most recently, the council has put out a tender to find a developer to build the €25 million site.

According to the tender notice, the county council plans a competition for the design and development of a retail outlet that includes car and bicycle parking spaces, eight retail units, a five-screen cinema and three restaurant units.

The winning bidder must acquire two anchor tenants for the site.

“The council’s vision is for the centre to be a driver for the regeneration and rejuvenation for the commercial centre of Bray,” the tender notice said. “A key aim will be to attract established fashion retailers to the centre, with shops of a size necessary to achieve this.”

Bray councillor Christopher Fox told Fora that a number of companies had expressed an interest before the tendering process was opened.

He said the council has already completed a “checklist” of each of those companies to ensure that it appoints the most suitable developer.

As part of the tendering process, interested particles have to prove that they have to ability to acquire credit to finally finish the job. Fox said the project is on track, but agreed that “unfortunately, it’s a slow process”.

“When it’s such a build and such a large development, tendering process does tend to be a little bit longer,” he said.

The council hopes that the project would be completed by the end of next year.

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