Posted on Thursday 10 May 2012 by Ulster Business
Some of the new businesses that have opened in St. Anne’s Square
As visitor numbers at the stunning building rocket and the row over public access to the staircase in the banqueting suite rumbles on, the arts district of the city centre has quietly continued to establish itself as a thriving hub for businesses, hotels, bars, restaurants and the arts.
The new £18m MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) based in Saint Anne’s Square has proved very popular since its stylish doors opened to the public last month, offering theatre, dance, art, music and food to visitors, seven days a week.
And with the University of Ulster announcing plans to relocate nearly 15,000 students from Jordanstown to its York Street Campus, there are further exciting times ahead for the area.
Edwards & Co. Solicitors, previously based in Victoria Street, moved to the Cathedral Quarter in 1994, becoming one of the first businesses to set up in the area.
A spokesman for the firm said over the years, the people working there have seen the area around them develop into a thriving cultural quarter for Belfast.
“Gone are the days when it was seen as run-down part of the city,” he said.
“Nowadays, Edwards & Co.’s is at the hub of a vibrant business community, well served with first-rate local venues like the Merchant Hotel or the newly-opened MAC just around the corner, as well as numerous bustling cafes and restaurants, making it a great environment to work in.”
In 2003 Paul Malone spotted the potential of the Cathedral Quarter and set up Paperjam Design Ltd in the Cotton Court building in Waring Street. Cotton Court is a hub of creativity, with organisations such as Belfast Print Workshop, Craft NI, Tern TV and Young At Art also based there.
“I knew the Cathedral Quarter had great potential and was going to be a really nice and happening area of the city,” Paul said.
“My business is all about branding companies and how people perceive them, so I wouldn’t be doing so well in an industrial estate somewhere. It was brave to start our business in a dead area of Belfast, but it’s worked,” he added.
Paul notes the Paperjam has picked up lot of work in the area, from the Merchant Hotel and Nick’s Warehouse, to public sector contracts.
“We named and rebranded the Obel building in Donegall Quay and we are doing lots of big jobs in London. We’ve just rebranded the Bishop of London, which was a great gig for a small company from Northern Ireland to get,” he said.
“Cathedral Quarter is such a lively area. With the MAC just opening everything is really going to kick in now. There has been such a transformation in the last decade. It’s a great place.”
Billy Wolsey, of Beannchor, told Ulster Business he has enjoyed watching the extensive regeneration of the Cathedral Quarter area over the years.
“Figures alone show how far the area has developed with footfall having increased on weekend nights from 200 to 5,000 people,” the hotelier said.
“When we decided to open The Merchant Hotel in 2006 we knew there was enormous potential for the Cathedral Quarter and were confident that The Merchant would be a catalyst for further regeneration of the area. This has proved to be the case,” he added.
“It is however vital that we continue the development of the area by filling vacant ground floor premises with shops and I believe we should introduce a policy whereby offices are not permitted to be located on the ground floor.”
Paul McErlean, chairman of the Cathedral Quarter Trust, said it was trying to ensure the special character of Belfast’s “cultural hub” is maintained and enhanced.
“We want as many people as possible to check out what is available and enjoy it,” he said.
“It’s the oldest part of our city, so there is a lot of heritage and special buildings which make up the character of it. It’s very important for us that we keep the cultural element and that this is very varied and well supported, as an important piece of Belfast’s infrastructure.
“The influx of thousands of students has to be managed properly, but overall it’s a brilliant decision by the University of Ulster. There is a full range of activities on offer in the Cathedral Quarter to cater for every age,” he added.
Mr MrErlean is also managing director of MCE Public Relations, based in Hill Street, and is part of the development team for the hotly debated Royal Exchange project.
At the moment there is no clear indication as to if and when the retail-led regeneration project will get off the ground.
“It is a massive opportunity for Belfast city centre. It’s a £300m+ investment into the regeneration of a whole very distinct part of the city centre, but it does depend on good quality planning decisions,” Mr McErlean says.
“We’ve taken a position on it at the Trust that if we make a bad planning decision and allow out of town characterless shopping out at Sprucefield instead of protecting our city centres, then it’s going to be really difficult to secure that investment for Belfast or any sort of serious city centre retail-led regeneration investment in any town centre, because John Lewis at Sprucefield is of regional significance.
“Does Belfast need Royal Exchange and the regeneration it will bring? Absolutely it does. Do we need another out of town shopping centre at Sprucefield? No, we don’t, in my mind and I just hope we are confident enough in our planning decisions to not allow that to happen,” he adds.
The Forum for Alternative Belfast is a community interest company that campaigns for a better and more equitable built environment.
One of its directors, Mark Hackett is an architect, formerly a partner in Hackett Hall McKnight, who won the competition to design the MAC arts centre.
He said the Cathedral Quarter has “grown organically and slowly” and while he described the University of Ulster moving students to the area as a “once in a century opportunity” he is conscious of “a few dangers”.
“The move needs to be managed with proper housing an area of focus,” he said.
“Cities make mistakes. The problems in the Holylands area have been created by a lack of city management. There is now division in the area that never existed 15 years ago.”
Mr Hackett said the Cathedral Quarter has “emerged for everyone”, but many businesses in the area struggle.
“The MAC is fantastic, but it’s just one building,” he said.
“The Black Box, the Cathedral Quarter Festival and the Golden Thread Gallery receive little funding but make an enormous contribution.
“Areas work because of the people, not because government throws money at it. People have to work together,” he added.
Mr Hackett is critical of the proposed Royal Exchange project saying “nobody wants the scheme in its present form”.
“Retail-led regeneration has had it’s time in Belfast,” he said.
“John Lewis can’t just get exactly what they want. They have to integrate in a careful, considered way. Royal Avenue is full of pound shops and takeaways, so how much retail can Northern Ireland really support? Even if it passes planning it poses danger to the Cathedral Quarter. The plans are not right yet. They are better than they were seven years ago, but it could kill the city rather than save it.”