Dublin's Smithfield: local businesses are shutting their doors while residents say petty crime is on the rise Mark Condren

IT WAS supposed to be the flagship project of inner city regeneration. Where once there were scrap-yards, lofty buildings would gleam instead and Smithfield in Dublin 7 would bustle like a new Temple Bar.

Giant braziers would burn in the night sky, figurative lighthouses to mark the transformation of one of the most neglected parts of the capital.

The ubiquitous panoramic view of the city was even on offer for anybody willing to pay a €5 entrance fee to take an elevator 60 metres to the top of the Smithfield chimney.

It was a "fabulous" development, said beaming taoiseach Bertie Ahern as he cut the ribbon on the observation tower in 2000.

"It really is magnificent. I can see my house from here," he purred. "Ten years ago, there was nothing in Smithfield and now you look around and see what has happened."

Nine years have since slipped by in what can sometimes seem like a matter of days – with the brash economic confidence of Mr Ahern now destined for history books.

The observation tower has permanently closed and the 12 symbolic braziers – each 26 metres tall – are now rarely lit, not least because it costs €500 an hour to supply them with gas.

Local businesses are shutting their doors. Thomas Read's pub has closed down, a victim of the economic crisis that sent its parent company into examinership.

During the boom years, it appeared as if a Spar or Centra had opened on every corner of Dublin city: it seemed completely unsustainable. It was.

Two of these shops in Smithfield have closed down, one following the other in quick succession, after struggling to compete with the supermarket Fresh, one of the few success stories in the area.

The Park Hotel, one of the original anchor tenants, has also ceased trading, while a traditional music museum called Ceol is barely surviving.

Local residents say petty crime is on the rise and that the problem of homeless alcoholics is more pronounced than ever. The Luas line, the key infrastructural project of the scheme, has also become a magnet for anti-social behaviour.

The notion of Smithfield as a flagship project of inner-city regeneration may belong to more optimistic Celtic Tiger days, but the regeneration is nevertheless a success, for the businesses that still call it home.

A year ago, the Lighthouse Cinema was resurrected in the Smithfield Square, more than 13 years after it had been forced to close its doors on Abbey Street.

For Neil Connolly and Maretta Dillon, their dream of reopening an alternative picture house, a "cultural beacon in the north inner city" had never died but had merely been in gestation.

Neil Connolly is open enough to admit that the regeneration of Smithfield has proved somewhat disappointing, but says the cinema itself is going "more than okay".

"Well, I think there are some disappointments around retail units being occupied and we need to talk to developers about that," he said. It's true that you can identify businesses that have shut down, and you would be hard-pressed to find many that have started up.

"For the Lighthouse, we opened in May 2008 and have achieved over 100,000 admissions in our first year. In the second six months, admissions were up 36% on the first half.

"We would be happier if there was more happening in the area but there will certainly be very interesting times ahead and the Lighthouse will be here to develop its role. Smithfield can succeed as a location and the cinema is working as a destination and a cultural hub.

"I think it is important to see the area in the wider context of the country's mood and the difficulties of starting new businesses and investing in new projects.

Tom Mulligan, the owner of the iconic Cobblestone pub in Smithfield, has witnessed many changes in the last 20 years, as the area was literally transformed from a place of derelict buildings and scrap yards to the ultra-modern development of today.

"If you could see what was there before, it was all basically dangerous. Years ago, you would see drunks and winos lying out on the square," he said.

"They're still there to some extent but now you can see barristers and other professionals stepping over them.

"It used to be just scrap yards all around and you would see a couple of burnt-out cars every other morning."

Mulligan admits businesses have been shutting their doors: "Certainly, there are places closing down but a new little café is after opening up, which would seem to be a vote of confidence in the area. The Fresh supermarket seems to be doing very well and the Lighthouse cinema looks to be faring well.

"Our own pub had Ken Loach in drinking when the Eric Cantona film was launched at the Lighthouse and another night we had Steve Martin in with his banjo; he even left his glasses behind.

"They used to say Smithfield would be the new Temple Bar; but that's like saying this band is going to be the next U2, there is no next U2, only another different band."

Pat Kearns owns one of the oldest businesses in Smithfield, a pawnbrokers and jewellers on Queen Street. The pawnbroking business would seem likely to be thriving in a recession – but Kearns would prefer if the good times had persisted.

"A rising tide lifts all boats," he said. "We would see a bit of upturn in one side of our business but we do a jewellery retail trade as well so that obviously has been affected.

"In Smithfield, the hotel is gone but the motor tax office and probation office have moved in. The apartments are all sold so from that angle, it was a great success.

"It's brought a lot of change to the area, it has been dramatic. It's just a pity that it was being finished at the wrong time.

"There is no doubt that it has been a change for the good. It used to be scrap-yards before so it's a big improvement. I think give it another little while and it will come good again."

For Dublin City Council, the surest sign of Smithfield's success is that an area which had been one of the city's least populated, now has one of the biggest inner city populations of any ward.

There are, without a doubt, 'issues' in the area, not the least of which is the Horse Fair, which takes place on the first Sunday of each month.

"The horse fair is a problem," says Deirdre Ní Raghallaigh, deputy area manager. "It is not suitable for that location and it is not managed. It is no secret that we are looking for a new venue. We are looking at our legal options because it just can't remain in situ as it is.

"There have been a number of complaints about animal cruelty and there is a health and safety issue. There are some issues down in Smithfield.

"We would say that establishing any new space takes time. With Temple Bar or anywhere like that, it took years to bed down and the completion of the west side of Smithfield is really only finished in the last two years.

"It has attracted a huge number of people to live in the area, and that ward has had one of the biggest increases of population of anywhere in the city.

"I think there are massive opportunities for Smithfield. We have the Lighthouse Cinema and the Cobblestone still brings in a large number of people. A new restaurant has just opened up and another one is coming, facing on to the square.

"From our perspective, the motor tax office brings in an awful lot of people and we have a Friday lunch-time market. We are working on that element at the moment particularly, building the markets and event side of things."

Laura Down, co-ordinator of Smithfield Area Management Association, says that "empty spaces" – in terms of the still-vacant shops and offices – have to be seen as an opportunity, not a problem.

"Smithfield is not final," she said. "It is too early to say the area is a success or a failure. Maybe some of the things predicted worked out and some didn't but that is always a risk with an area that is newly established."