Posted on Wednesday 3 October 2018 by Ulster Business

Royal Exchange

John Mulgrew looks at the changing face of Belfast city centre and its building heritage, and speaks to Patrick O’Gorman of Bywater about its £50m mixed-use redevelopment

Like many of us, I’ve spent the formative years of my life living in Belfast with the familiar totem of retail anchoring the city centre like a lighthouse amidst a dark sea.

The Bank Buildings, home to Primark for decades, sat as a beacon between Royal Avenue and Donegall Place, linking the north and south ends of the city centre thoroughfare.

It now, at the time of writing, sits with just a facade remaining – the business and architectural community divided as to whether it can kept, versus the detrimental impact an ongoing cordon is having on footfall to many big name and independent traders.

But the loss of the building puts fresh focus on what the city centre as a whole could, or will look like, in the next few years – as a number of major international developers earmark substantial mixed-use schemes which are set to change how Belfast as whole operates.

The largest is Royal Exchange – a £400m scheme, long in the pipeline, by Castlebrooke. Outside the city centre, the Belfast Waterside project will see the former Sirocco site close to Short Strand transformed into a mixed-use development including office space, apartments and retail, while the former Northside Regeneration is now on ice.

The latest major Belfast scheme which will see much undeveloped or underdeveloped sections of the north of the city centre, around Smithfield Market is Building Blocks.

Building Blocks is an office and mixed-use development, worth around £50m, by Bywater Properties and Ashmour.

Patrick O’Gorman is principal at Bywater. “What we have wanted is to do is put together a variety of work and business space,” he told Ulster Business.

“We didn’t just want office space for blue chip companies, but we didn’t just want space for start ups.”

Three new buildings are proposed, alongside the refurbishment of the listed Butcher’s Building.

Around half the 235,000 sq ft floor space being created will be dedicated for office use, accommodating around 1,500 people.

The ‘Mill Building’ includes 115,000 sq ft of top-end office space, while the Gresham Street development, with smaller floor plates, is designed to attract smaller independent businesses, such as law firms.

The Sawtooth building, according to Patrick, is the most affordable building, allowing young businesses and start-ups to take on space.

“What we want to do is bring in independent and local businesses – interesting and different, so that it becomes a focal point. I think that follows the character of the area, and what Smithfield was like.

Patrick says the biggest driver for the development is the nearby Ulster University campus – which has faced setbacks and delays in the last two years.

“That is going to bring so much regular footfall to the city and to the northern part of the city centre. The next biggest thing is what happens to Royal Exchange? It’s a big piece of land… I hope it gets put together well, and commercially makes sense.”

He says part of the goal for the various redevelopment schemes is to help attract people to the city centre at weekends, and not just for shopping or pubs in and around the popular nightlife areas.

“At the moment, with a family, there aren’t that many reasons to go into the city at the weekends. There is St George’s Market and the museum, but we need more reasons.

“In cities like Manchester, there are areas like the Northern Quarter, where you can just go and wander around. It has its own feel and its own vibe. That’s what Belfast needs to be.”

Going back to Royal Exchange, the £400m revamp could include a 27-storey high-rise building as part of the ambitious scheme which it’s claimed will create 6,000 jobs – according to developers.

The plan will include the creation of three new streets, helping to connect Royal Avenue with the start of the Cathedral Quarter. The redevelopment includes Donegall Street, North Street, Lower Garfield Street, High Street and Lombard Street. It’s received the green light for the first stages of the work.

However, it has been met with some resistance from some groups, including the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and the Save CQ campaign group.

As part of it, the proposed 27-storey building mooted for Royal Exchange has been described as a “massive monolith” which they say threatens to overshadow the city’s oldest church.

Towards Short Strand, Belfast Waterside will see the former Sirocco Works redeveloped into a mixed-use scheme including apartments, office space and retail.

The first phase of the development, costing £50m, will see the creation 250,000 sq ft of grade A office space at the site. That will include a 13-storey building.

But aside from large-scale, multi-planning applications, and regionally significant schemes, some of the city’s existing listed buildings are now being given a new lease of life.

Work is now well under way on turning the Ewarts building on Bedford Street, a former Victorian linen warehouse, into an office development, with a large multi-storey extension.

Just across the road, Lawrence Kenwright is set to open his new George Best Hotel at the old Scottish Mutual Building – one of several developments in Belfast, including the Crumlin Road courthouse and War Memorial Building on Waring Street.

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