Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Crown bar in row over 14-storey building next door

Changing face: The Crown Liquor Saloon

The historic Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast has become embroiled in the refusal of planning permission for a 14-storey office building on its mosaic doorstep.

The Department of the Environment's planners have cited the potential impact on the iconic pub as they put the brakes on the proposal, which includes replacing Brennan's Bar – the former Beaten Docket pub – on Great Victoria Street and Amelia Street.

Applicant, Fisherwick Inns, will next week appeal the the DoE's recommendation to refuse planning permission at an informal hearing before the Planning Appeals Commission.

Their plan would see the replacement of the existing Beaten Docket, and of the bookmakers next to it, with offices to be built above. It would triple the existing floor space to 3,452sq m and, according to the application, result in another 100 'employees' using the site.

But planners said Fisherwick's plans would "adversely impact on the character of the area and would not relate sympathetically to its immediate surroundings, including the listed Crown Liquor Saloon".

They deemed it would harm "the setting, character and appearance of the Belfast city centre and Linen conservation areas".

Just last month, the Crown had to close for nearly a week, after its alcohol licence lapsed following an administrative blunder.

No one from Fisherwick Inns, which also owns the Monico Bar in the city centre, was available for comment. Michael Burroughs and Associates, the planning advisors acting as agents, also said they were unable to comment.

But Michael Corr, creative director of built environment centre PLACE, said "ambitious" plans for the area should be championed.

"Great Victoria Street is a key gateway into the city and the proposed investment in this location is hugely welcome," he said.

"We should champion building projects that are ambitious in terms of design and architecture, but at the same time, it is essential for Belfast to consider the contribution of this building, and others proposed, in the context of the street and the wider city."

He said his organisation would welcome the chance to provide a "design review" of the building – and other important constructions around Northern Ireland.

"Design reviews at pre and post-planning stage can ensure quality in design in terms of mass, scale, materiality and construction. Issues that have been raised as objections are to this particular building."

The only objection from the scheme has been made by representatives of HMRC, which occupies nearby Dorchester House. HMRC has said that the proposal would "almost totally block out the natural daylight" of the north side of Dorchester House.

It would also make a problem which had led to the area's sewage system "backing up", even worse, the objector claimed.

No one from the National Trust, which owns the Crown and sub-lets it to pub operator, Mitchells and Butlers, was available for comment.

But a cohort of architecture critics on an online forum were scathing of the planners' recommendation.

Opinion: Essential heritage is rightly reflected

By Tom Ekin

MY thinking is that a city that is vibrant has got to have some form of city architect who can look to the structure of the city and make sure that anything that's built is in sympathy with the aims and ambitions of the city and its heritage. But we look at things as individual cases and not at the whole city, writes Tom Ekin

A good city will have architectural design so that people won't just throw up offices of the wrong shape or size.

It's not clear what 14 storeys at this site would look like – yet a study said Belfast was an 'eight storey' city, in spite of Windsor House and Europa Hotel, which were regarded as exceptional. The best way to deal with this issue is to have a model of the city – like Berlin – and where you can put a 14 storey building beside a three storey one and see what it looks like. When I talk to people about the architecture of Belfast, they feel it's appalling and could be better.

By looking at individual cases, we are repeating mistakes. This takes me back to where we were when I was in Johannesburg 40 years ago and came up with a design plan for the city where everything was planned and built "in context". If we can do that in South Africa, surely we can do it in Northern Ireland today?

Tom Ekin is an Alliance Party city councillor and managing director of Weavers Court Business Park on Linfield Road. His company Linfield Properties is building a new office development at Weavers Court of around 20,000 sq ft over three floors

'Gateway into Belfast' a graveyard of many failed planning applications

By Margaret Canning

Great Victoria Street is described as a gateway into Belfast and is often the first port of call for tourists as the location of Translink's main bus station in the city and the landmark Europa Hotel.

However, it has seen little or no major development in recent years, and the busiest building has been the restaurant now known as the Malt Room.

It is part of the empire of developer Lord Rana, whose Andras House company headquarters is next to the Malt Room.

The current application by Fisherwick for 48 to 50 Great Victoria Street and Amelia Street is not their first for that site.

A previous application – which has now expired – proposed demolishing the existing building and bookmakers and building in its place a 12-storey development of a new public house and bookies.

They also proposed a cycle hire store, two first floor office units –and 28 aparthotel units for the upper 10 floors, including a penthouse.

But the most notorious application for Great Victoria Street was made in 2007, when Mervyn McAlister of McAlister Holdings in Ballycastle proposed the Aurora Building.

His grand design was a 37-floor skyscraper of offices and apartments, which would feature a light display mimicking the aurora at its summit.

But it was refused planning permission, prompting a campaign by Mr McAlister posing the question "Belfast closed for business?"

The site was later repossessed by Anglo Irish Bank, sold, and restored to its former use as a petrol station, which remains in place today. Mr McAlister was declared bankrupt.

The recommendation by Planning Service to refuse planning permission for the latest application by Fisherwick was met with derision from an online forum of aficionados of architecture.

One fumed: "Would love the Department of the Environment to explain their rationale for opposing this – given the fact that Great Victoria Street is a total and utter embarrassment, they better have good reasons."