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£20m Belfast office plan and 350 jobs face axe over concerns

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By John Mulgrew

A £20m building earmarked to attract a major financial firm with 350 new jobs is now in serious doubt, after an independent report has suggested it should not go ahead.

French firm Stargime is planning to build a modern extension on to the former First Trust Bank building - designed by Queen's University architect Sir Charles Lanyon - at Queen's Square in the heart of the city.

That could involve adding a major 80,000 sq ft office building to the existing structure - much of which is listed and dates back to the 1850s. But a third-party report commissioned for Belfast City Council raises serious concerns over the "considerable disadvantages of the impact on both the listed building and the setting in the square".

And it suggests the development should not be put forward for approval. It's raised concerns over the impact it could have on the original 1850s building.

That could mean the city potentially losing out on a multi-million pound investment from a major international business, with which the site's owner Stargime has said it is in "an advanced stage of negotiations".

In its design statement, planners say that could be worth over £400m to the Northern Ireland economy over a 15-year period.

It could also add more than 150 construction jobs during its build.

The office development received a number of letters of objection and concerns.

Those voicing concerns included the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and the Belfast Civic Trust.

It comes after a report from Invest NI warned Northern Ireland could lose out on attracting crucial foreign direct investment due to a lack of prime office space.

And aside from Invest NI concerns, a number of reports from commercial property firms have cited a severe lack of top-end office space as a major concern.

Richard Bowman of Strategic Planning - the planners behind the proposed Queen's Square development - remains positive about the office building.

"Officials are generally favourable of a scheme of this nature on the site," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The council have to weigh up what they are hearing from us, consultations and the strong economic argument."

The next step will see Belfast City Council planners decide whether to put forward the development for approval.

But the report's comments "don't send a good message" for developers, said Eamonn Murphy of Murphy Chartered Surveyors.

"I don't see why it would be refused ... it doesn't send out a good message for developers," he said.

The developer of the Queen's Square building, which sits near the Albert Clock, said Belfast has "no other significant sites" with "potential to provide 70,000 sq ft of Grade A office space by 2017".

And it said the development is "consistent with the Northern Ireland Executive's economic and regional development strategies" as it offers "the potential to attract significant inward investment".

It said the new extension would "sit beside and above the existing bank building, creating a bold statement of a modern office grounded with historic character".

It would be higher than most other developments in the area, at around 30m tall at its highest point.

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