Posted on Wednesday 9 May 2018 by John Mulgrew

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The Irishman tasked with turning a long-vacant huge brownfield site on the banks of the River Lagan into a thriving business hub and community has long-standing ties to Belfast.

Chris Kane, originally from Kildare, is chairman of Vanguard Real Estate. It's the property vehicle which intends to finally develop the former Sirocco site, close to the Short Strand, into a massive mixed-use development.

“I'm not a developer. My career has been as a leader in corporate private real estate for the BBC and the Walt Disney company. My background is in large estate transformation,” he told Ulster Business.

The sale of the site was first revealed by the Belfast Telegraph back in 2016.

Chris wants the grand Belfast Waterside plan to be finished by 2023. It will see the 16-acre site include 250,000 sq ft of office space, hundreds of homes and a bridge – aiming to play host to more than 5,000 people when completed.

“My connection with the city goes back a long time,” Chris said.

“I had the privilege of serving on the Laganside development (Laganside Corporation).

“I'm no stranger to Belfast. Part of what we were doing is building a connected community in a city that deserves regeneration.”

One of his previous high-profile projects was the BBC's huge move to Salford in Manchester. It saw thousands of jobs being shifted into what is now the 200-acre MediaCityUK.

“Salford was a great example, working with our branch team, to demonstrate through partnership... recreating Salford, and making the MediaCity what it is today.

“There were the 2,500 jobs that the BBC brought along with Granada, independent production has spawned thousands of jobs, and added significantly to the GDP.

“It was based on a proper partnership between the public and private.

“That's what we hope to achieve for Belfast. At the moment, Belfast is a city beside the Lagan. It should be a city on the Lagan.

“Part of what I would see the Belfast Waterside project doing, along with the Titanic Quarter, is helping to reconnect Belfast, and repopulate the Laganside, generally.

“Going back to my Disney days, re-imagining a huge brownfield site as a waterfront for the city (outside Paris).”

Essentially, a new town, Marne-la-Vallee, was built outside Paris to complement the new Disneyland resort, which opened in 1992.

Speaking about plans for the new Belfast Waterside development, Chris said: “(It's about) bringing a brownfield site into a sustainable use, and clearly, delivering commercial returns to our organisation, but also working very hard to making a viable contribution to social purpose.”

And whether it's exaggeration, or not, he's clear what he thinks Belfast, as a city, could become in the next five to 10 years.

“If we get our act together, Belfast can be the best (city) on this island, if not in Europe or the rest of the world. The potential is there - the workforce, the connectivity, the quality of life.”

Of course, like almost everyone else, he's also keen for a return to government at Stormont.

“Belfast City Council made a great impact at MIPIM. It has a prominence, and it was great to see how big an impact it has had. That has to be built upon,” he said.

“When I came on board, we engaged a whole raft of consultants, on the back of that, and I reconnected with contacts I made in the past, and the community.

“People spoke out about their concerns, and hopefully the new updated designs will reflect that.”

Asked what concerns had been raised about the plans, he said: “The issues were about whether it was exciting enough... connectivity.

“It's about being able to walk home safely at night, from the city centre.

“Being able to feel that this new piece of urban real estate is positive and indicative of Belfast in the 21st century. That, whatever community you come from, you can be proud of it.

“Every time you fly in (to Belfast), you look at where Sirocco/Waterside is... it's a hidden gem. You say to yourself, this is what will unlock the city.”

The company also took on new architects, Henning Larsen, to oversee the scheme's design. Planning consultancy Turley is also working on the development.

“I wanted to get someone that understands cities that don't have 365 days of sunshine a year,” Chris said.

“It's understanding daylight, and maximising the sun when it is out, and also dealing with wind.”

The first phase includes 250,000 sq ft of office space, followed by the creation of one, two and three-bedroom apartments on the riverside site, as part of plans for up to 750 new homes.

“Phase one is 250,000 sq ft office building and some housing - 700 sq m of hive building for content creation. Overall, it's a £400m project,” Chris said.

“It's a biggie. It looks like Belfast has a shortage of grade A office space.

“We want to put a spade in the ground this year, and complete by 2023. We have significant confidence in Northern Ireland. If everyone can row in together, the city has huge advantage and will be hugely attractive to inward investment.

“With phase two, we are going to get the design, the bridge finished, work with public bodies on how best to do that, working on public realm.

“We have a good fortune to be well financed. The site was purchased for cash, so there is no debt on the site.”

Previous plans for the waterside development included 5,000 apartments, a hotel, an international convention centre, a supermarket, leisure facilities and other retail sites.

Asda had been tipped as operators of the supermarket. Ewart Properties sold the Sirocco site for £40m to the Carvill Group in 2006.

The proposal was once billed as "a new cultural destination for the city" and was one of the Carvill Group's flagship Belfast projects.

However, Carvill Group, a company which made its name in construction as well as housebuilding, went into administration in 2011.

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