Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Belfast's Aurora project looks doomed as receiver steps in

The proposed Aurora building for Great Victoria Street

It has become an emblem of the downturn in the construction sector, where once it embodied the burning ambition of a property developer.

A few years ago in the early stages of the economic downturn, it was claimed that the Aurora building would regenerate a neglected and shabby part of Belfast city centre and act as a catalyst for further economic regeneration.

It would also create employment and send out the message that Belfast was "open for business".

Now there is only doubt about the future of the plans for the dazzling 37-storey structure after a receiver was appointed by Anglo Irish Bank to the land where it was to be located in Great Victoria Street.

Mervyn McAlister, a Ballycastle man in his early forties who built hundreds of houses in his native seaside town before turning his ambitions to Belfast, has remained silent since 2009 when plans for the Aurora on the site he owned were turned down.

It is believed he spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on the doomed plans.

Among the litany of reasons for refusal cited by the Planning Service, it was claimed the mixed-use building would not fit in with its surroundings.

That decision sparked a furore, with Finance Minister Sammy Wilson locking horns with his own planners.

He said they had behaved "abysmally" in overlooking the economic potential of the site, a claim which was echoed by city councillors.

A giant sign was put up on the site, asking 'is Belfast closed for business?'

Two years on, and that particular site is certainly closed for business.

Its fate is in the hands of Anglo Irish Bank, now expected to put it up for sale.

It has been a temporary car park for at least two years and the location of advertising awnings for taxi companies.

Anglo Irish loaned extensively to property developers North and South during the boom and is now moving quickly against property companies.

It has also appointed receivers to Co Londonderry company McWilliams Homes, based in Swatragh.

The properties affected include lands at Muff in Co Donegal, along with other properties at Ballymacool and Newtowncunningham in Donegal and Portstewart in Derry.

Last year it appointed a receiver to some of the assets belonging to the Jermon group of companies, established by former pharmacist Peter Dolan from Co Tyrone.

Fanum House, which is next to the Aurora site, was put up for sale by receiver Tom Keenan, and is understood to have been bought for £5m by a private individual.

And in May last year it triggered the administration of the Odyssey Pavilion over a £70m loan taken out with the bank.

The Aurora building was to house almost 300 apartments, a residents' gym, and 7,000 sq ft of commercial space, including a restaurant.

It was to be designed by HKR Architects.

A specially-commissioned roof-top light feature was to simulate the northern lights at night, which was the origin of the Aurora name.