Vacant Retail Units + Student Accommodation - Made for each other?

Ireland, and particularly its main cities and towns, are suffering from an acute shortage of accommodation at all levels of the market - family living, hotel rooms, student accommodation - you name the bed-need, and there's a corresponding drought. A resurgent economy, following a period with little investment following the Post-2008 Irish economic downturn, has caught the nation short of sufficient beds to house residents and visitors alike.

This was all predicted throughout the years, of course, however with very little credit being extended to front speculative construction, there was little that private enterprise nor the government could do except wait for the inevitable capacity crunch. And the capacity crunch happened as the economy recovered, coupled with emigrants returning home, and immigrants from other nations all wishing to take part in the Celtic Phoenix.

Separately from accommodation shortages, we read that retail, particularly on our main streets, is struggling. This isn't a phenomenon unique to Ireland - firstly the rise of out of town centre commercial shopping centres capitalising on greater car ownership put main streets under pressure (along with the local councils for main streets having punitive steps to discourage driving in our main streets with high parking rates). Secondly, and more recently, even the out of town centre shopping centres have themselves come under pressure due to internet shopping. It's becoming rapidly apparent that main streets are turning away from general retail, and focusing more and more on service type outlets (e.g. coffee shops, restaurants etc.) in order to survive.

It was therefore with interest that I noticed a proposal to allow vacant retail units be turned into residential space. A great idea, particularly given Ireland's pressing shortage of residential units, and the dearth of retail units around the country. These retail units are in well serviced areas, with all of the valuable amenities around them at a walkable distance (rather than outer suburbia where one is defacto dependant on a vehicle of some sort). And indeed, for many of these units, their original purpose was residential, with the shopkeeper living upstairs. But would these re-imagined retail units be suitable for those who are hardest affected by the current accommodation shortage, young families and also downsizers?

Retail areas are known to be noisy, owing to proximity to pubs, which is not helpful when trying to get children to sleep at night. Retail areas aren't typically overrun with playgrounds, an indispensable public space when helping our children develop their play and climbing skills. There is usually little to no car-parking available, precluding young families from participating in modern middle class life. And it's hard to envisage the economic justification for fitting buggy sized lifts to these retail units, suggesting mobility issues for both families and less able bodied downsizers lugging goods up a stairs.

One must also consider the cost of renovation, to bring these spaces in line with contemporary building regulations. Minimum size criteria is specified for apartments, as are balconies, car parking spaces, provision of facilities within. Whilst Ireland's present building regulations result in a high quality of life end-product, that quality comes at a cost, which the market is not willing to pay for presently (particularly exacerbated by the Irish norm of an apartment being a "starter home" rather than a "forever home"). Even if building regulations derogations were negotiated on a case-by-case basis for each renovation, it could prove a frustrating experience for Ireland's assigned certifiers who will have to assess that compliance, and further lower the attractiveness of an already compromised housing solution.

So, like many initiatives: a good idea, let down by practical reality? Not quite: I propose throwing out the bathwater and keeping the baby by refocusing the target market for these re-imagined retail units to accommodating third level students. There is a large demand for such accommodation. As a cohort, all of the downsides that retail living presents to young families etc. are actually either neutral issues or infact benefits to students. They don't care about lift access to their accommodation (and disabled students could be accommodated on the ground floor). The lack of car parking isn't an issue for them as they would generally like to live within walking or cycling distance of college, saving on the prohibitive cost of motoring. And the noise owing to proximity to pubs...well the students will at least have a short commute home from the pubs where they were making said noise. And during the summer, which is typically a slack time for occupancy for student accommodation, reversion to short term airbnb type lets would be feasible, in ideal locations for tourists, where there aren't too many adjacent permanent residents to be negatively affected by such lettings.

Indeed, the fact that the retail units and their upstairs may be tight and difficult to fit facilities into may actually play a role in making their rejuvenated use as student accommodation a success. A co-living space in London, targeted at young professionals rather than at students, revealed some lessons learned about how to lay out these spaces. They found that the little communal kitchenettes allocated to a small number of bedrooms went generally unused as social spaces, however the clothes washing space became an unexpectedly fun space - in phase 2 of their development they plan to kit out the clothes washing space with some more space & comfort, and also expand the communal movie space owing to its popularity. Transposing these ideas to a typical 3 storey retail unit, it's easy to imagine a ground floor with communal movie, kitchen & clothes washing space, and accommodation upstairs. Indeed, with appropriate sound proofing, the concept of renovating retail spaces for professionals to occupy could also take off - their needs aren't dissimilar to students in many respects.

Of course, this idea is only suitable if there is a nearby third level institution, or good transport links. Nevertheless, by selectively re-imagining Ireland's retail spaces to accommodate students & some of the peak holiday visitors, there is potentially a knock on relaxation of demand on other property more suitable for those that have the more pressing need, and also breathe life into our towns & cities again.

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