Posted on Monday 3 September 2018 by John Mulgrew
“Who does this guy think he is?” - It’s been 18 months since Liverpool developer Lawrence Kenwright first officially dipped his toe in the waters of the Belfast hotel scene, and he says that’s been the tone of some of those he’s met along the way here.
Now, less than two years after his first announcement, he’s due to open two new hotels in December. That includes the George Best Hotel at the former Scottish Mutual Building, and the Waring Hotel at the former War Memorial building in the city centre.
But it’s been far from plain sailing for the 52-year-old, especially when it comes to his most ambitious development to date – the Crumlin Road courthouse.
“We have had a very long, fractious process of getting plans through. Not to blame anyone, but the system in Northern Ireland is a lot longer than anywhere else, and I found that quite tough,” he told Ulster Business.
“It’s literally falling down. Around 20% of court room one’s ceiling has fallen down in the last year.
“We’ve been given the OK to go out and shore up walls and ceilings, so that’s good.
“Originally it had planning to knock down the back wall, and extend, but I didn’t like that, because you are messing around the original (building).”
Originally, the hotel was due to be a 150-bedroom scheme, but that’s now been revised down.
Lawrence’s company Signature Living is now going with a mansard roof, and building an extra floor. Plans show the hotel could be a smaller development with 71 bedrooms amid newly filed plans.
He said previous plans submitted, following two public consultations were knocked back.
“We had two public consultations, and there were no problems. Then they (planners) said no,” he said.
Now, we have just put one floor in the roof, and then we have gone to the Crumlin Road jail on the other side, and we are hopefully going to put accommodation in the wings.
“It’s not confirmed yet, but we are looking at whether we can open up the tunnel and access the wings.
“It’s no more tricky, but planning has been more tricky. I walked into that building with my eyes open, and I knew it was always going to be tough.”
His first flagship hotel in Northern Ireland will be the 63-bedroom George Best Hotel.
“We are still on track to open the first week in December. The only thing holding it up is when we took away the foundations for where the lift was going to go, there was quite a lot of asbestos – we have now removed that.
“All the rooms are built, the first fix is in and second is going in.”
The events space, which will sit atop the hotel will be called ‘Seven in the Sky’ and have enough space for 260 covers, along with a root-top balcony overlooking City Hall and Donegall Square.
Lawrence is also pushing ahead with plans for a George Best statue – peering down on the city.
Also due to open its doors in December is the Waring Hotel. It’s changed hands a couple of times in the last few years, and now, it’s set to become a “food and beverage-led” development, in a similar vein to Lawrence’s other hotels, such as 30 James Street in Liverpool.
“The Waring will be food and beverage led. It’s a hotel that is more akin to Signature Living. The George Best is more akin to the Shankly (Lawrence’s other Liverpool hotel named after the late Liverpool manager).”
The first phase will just include the original building, and Lawrence says there will be no more than two to three beds in each room.
But it’s aiming to increase in size, and extend towards the rear of the building – growing room numbers to 55.
So, how does he rate Belfast as a place to do business, so far?
“Belfast is a great city. I thought planning would be a bit simpler… but I have to conform with what you do. It’s a lot slower than Liverpool.
“I’ve my eyes wide open, and understand the process. They are also realising that they need to be quicker. It’s not just me – it’s just the way it is.”
But how does Lawrence feel about going up against a well-established hotel scene in Northern Ireland – dominated by family-owned businesses. His George Best Hotel will sit directly across from the newly-opened Grand Central from Hastings Hotels – the largest of its kind in Northern Ireland.
“They are a different product... we will carry on with what we do.
“If it was the same product, then I would be worried. But it’s a different product.”
He said he believes some in Northern Ireland took a view of “who does this guy think he is?” when he first announced his plans to open hotels across Belfast city centre back in early 2017.
“I’ve been in Liverpool 10 years and I’m still getting it there,” he said.
Lawrence also wants the chance to transform the derelict Floral Hall dance hall building on Cave Hill in Belfast into a new hotel and venue.
He’s also pressing on with three other hotels in England, including a Dixie Dean hotel – named after the Everton footballer.
“(We are having a) tough time with that, and there are still tenants in there. They have to come out by the end of the month.
“That has to open for April 2019, as does Preston in 2019.”