Posted on Friday 10 May 2013 by Ulster Business

Univ of Ulster

By 2018 the bulk of the University of Ulster's current activity at its Jordanstown campus will be relocated to the heart of Belfast city centre.

The campus on York Street, affectionately known by many as the Art College, currently houses around 2,000 students, but by the time the £250m Greater Belfast Development project is complete there will be 15,000 people studying there with around 6,000 on campus each day.

Meanwhile, Jordanstown will retain its sports facilities, some specialist engineering study and student residences.

Creating a new 75,000sq ft site in Belfast throws up a series of challenges but has the potential to boost construction, retail, hospitality, tourism and the property market as well as transforming the vibe in the city centre.

UU's pro-vice chancellor for development, Professor Alastair Adair, heads the Greater Belfast Development project.

"Many people are referring to this as the regeneration opportunity of the century. We believe it is the regeneration, economic, business and social opportunity of the century," Professor Adair said.

"It's a big challenge to deliver it but it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It will transform people's lives for the better."

UU is currently ranked sixth in the UK for widening access for young people from disadvantaged communities, so its new neighbours in North Belfast will be an area of focus.

Professor Adair's team looked to Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Cambridge University and the London School of Economic for inspiration when developing the project as part of UU's commitment to the long-term future of higher education in Northern Ireland.

"We have to ensure this building meets the education purpose of the university," he said.

"It's very clear from other universities you have to change the culture when you move to a new building. We are reaching out to disadvantaged communities, the business community, the Executive and the council. It's a tremendous opportunity to look at what the university does. Learning is changing and the new building has to reflect that."

If the move was just a case of upping sticks and providing no added value there would no point to it, says Adair, who sees faculties being close together as an exciting opportunity for spin off benefits.

Concerns about the impact of the new campus are being raised by architect Mark Hackett, formerly a partner in Hackett Hall McKnight, who won the competition to design Belfast's MAC arts centre. He is the director of The Forum for Alternative Belfast, a community interest company that campaigns for a better and more equitable built environment. On the UU issue it has been helping the Campus Development Group (CDG), newly formed of the neighbourhoods near to the upcoming project.

He said: "There are massive questions left hanging about an influx of cars and speculators hovering the area with a 'High rise Holylands' risk of dysfunctional, poorly designed student housing evolving – all this cheek by jowl with some of the UK's poorest neighbourhoods, which are under huge stress. People are trying to highlight that all this needs resolution, and it needs the neighbourhoods and community sector to be fully part of solving those risks."

Professor Adair is co-author of UU's regular house price surveys and said the impact on the property market is "bound to be positive" but is clear "the last thing we want is a repeat of the Holylands" an area of South Belfast densely populated with higher education students, many from nearby Queen's University.

"Planning policy is no more than 30% multiple occupancy but in Holylands that has grown to over 60%," he said. "Around 65% of the population are under 25 so you have an imbalanced community. We cannot have the same policy failure in North Belfast as we have had in South Belfast."

Professor Alastair Adair acknowledges the influx of students will provide a challenge to governance in the city, but says it will be a force for good and encourages "a ramp up of economic activity".

He said his team is keen to work with the planning authority, Belfast City Council, local residents and anyone else with a stake in the area.

"The Northern edge is one of the forgotten parts of Belfast and has always been an interface and an area in need of upgrading. The biggest challenge is going to be the joined up approach from government," he said.

There are currently 2,300 car park spaces at Jordanstown but this sort of provision will not be available at the Belfast campus, so a "modal shift" is required.

"We have to change travel patterns and reduce the dependency on cars. I live in Newtownards and have already started coming in on the bus," Professor Adair said.

"Belfast doesn't have a major resident parking scheme, like Dublin or Glasgow. If there is a lack of joined up thinking and 2,500 car parkers come into the centre of Belfast you will have a shambles. We are meeting with Translink and DRD to ensure joined up thinking."

The buildings for the new campus were acquired without the need for compulsory purchase powers and as the University of Ulster had a royal charter and is a charitable institution it has gone to the capital market to fund the project.

The Department of Employment and Learning are providing £16m and a syndicate of banks are providing the rest, which the University will pay back over a 20 to 25 year period.

"To service that mortgage we are setting aside £18m each year from the annual income of £200m," Professor Adair said.

"£10m will be spent on the new campus and the other £8m on the North West Campus at Coleraine and Magee. £10m per year for Belfast over 20 to 25 years gives you £250m, so we are in effect educating 50% of our students for 5% of our income. As a householder if you were able to do that you would be doing very well; our auditors say it's a great deal."

Carol Ramsey, chair of the Royal Town Planning Institute in Northern Ireland (RTPI NI) said it supports a diverse mix of uses in city centres.

"Belfast is the main economic driver of the whole of Northern Ireland," she said.

"The University's development plans sit alongside a range of initiatives planned for this section of the city. These include the Department of Social Development's proposals for Northside Urban Village, the Royal Exchange regeneration project, the public realm proposals outlined in Belfast Streets Ahead phase 3 and continuing work ongoing in the Cathedral Cultural quarter which are all in close proximity to the new UU site," she added.

"The combination of these initiatives will enhance connections between the north-side of the city centre and the retail core through to the City Hall. This University development has the opportunity to harness the regeneration opportunity of Town and Gown in Belfast city centre."

Meanwhile, Helen Harrison, director of JUNO Planning and Environmental Ltd, the planning consultant for UU's Belfast city campus, said it is extremely proud to be involved in such an exciting and ambitious project.

"The design team has developed the University's bold vision to create a series of civic educational buildings which respect the history of the city as it is today and which will become a focal point in Belfast for many future generations to come," she said.

"The new Belfast City Campus will have a huge regenerative and transformational impact on this run down part of the city, bringing 15,000 students and staff into the city and creating learning and business opportunities for the communities surrounding it," the consultant added.

"The campus is central to Belfast City Council's Investment Programme 2012-2015, with wide ranging benefits across many sectors including existing businesses, culture, communities and, notably, the beleaguered construction industry. The guaranteed investment of £250m sends a strong signal of investor confidence which will not go unnoticed by those considering investing in the city and the wider region."

Ms Harrison explained the significant benefits of this type of investment are well recognised and clearly evidenced, noting that a Universities UK 2010 report highlighted UK higher education generates nearly £60bn for the economy with a multiplier effect of 3:1 and evidence from evaluation studies of UK regeneration projects indicates that for every £1 of public sector investment, up to £5 of private sector expenditure can be leveraged.

On the impact of construction specifically, every £1 invested in construction generates £2.84 in total economic activity according to a 2009 UK Construction Group report.

David Gavaghan, the chief executive of Titanic Quarter Limited, said at a macro level the project is "unbelievably good news for Belfast".

Gavaghan, who has a background in property, infrastructure and project finance remarked, tongue in cheek, that the "only mistake was not to relocate to Titanic Quarter".

"I'm a product of Trinity College Dublin and one of the joys of studying there is you are right in the heart of the city centre. Queen's is beautiful but it is outside the core," he said.

"UU has some great disciplines – like art, architecture and business – so the new campus can only be a good thing. To me the challenge will be how we build upon the next thing," he added.

"Belfast has to become a global city. Our great challenge is to absolutely focus on that, because if Belfast works, Northern Ireland works. There needs to be a focus on the restoration and revival of inner Belfast and a linking of the quarters."

For more about the new UU Belfast campus visit www.ulster.ac.uk/greaterbelfastdevelopment

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