Developers aim to give new lease of life to listed Belfast city warehouse
A derelict Belfast warehouse once dubbed a confident expression of the city's prowess in the linen industry could soon be transformed into high-end office space, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Listed building Ewarts Warehouse has been vacant for at least 20 years but now ambitious Tyrone developers McAleer & Rushe have renewed their bid to develop the site. The building is part of the wider Bedford Square development, which also includes Invest NI's headquarters, and an office tower block also planned by McAleer & Rushe in the second phase of the development.
The fresh plans for the site come as Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster today announces a scheme to ensure Northern Ireland has enough Grade A office accommodation. Invest NI had commissioned a report which found that supply of Grade A office accommodation had fallen.
The minister said: "The lack of development may be due to constraints on bank lending to fund Grade A office space developments. Recent increases in office rents should improve the financial viability of projects and help encourage both developers and funders to re-enter the market.
"To address this, Invest NI will explore whether mezzanine or equity finance to developers on commercial terms would act as a short-term intervention which would stimulate the development of new Grade A office accommodation."
McAleer & Rushe could seek support from Invest NI for their development plans for Ewarts Warehouse. The four storey 1870s building with its distinct sandstone facade had been granted planning permission in 2008 following plans by the developers and Ewart Properties to turn it into a 70-bedroomed hotel and retail unit. Those plans were discarded during the economic downturn and planning permission lapsed in 2013.
But this month McAleer & Rushe vehicle Bedford Street Enterprises lodged new plans to turn the corner building into Grade A offices. Ewart Properties is no longer involved, however - and no-one from McAleer & Rushe was available for comment.
The building was designed by James Hamilton, also the architect of the Waring Street Ulster Bank, now the Merchant Hotel.
Wealthy merchants, the Ewarts used the building as a linen warehouse - and historian Jonathan Bardon has described it as "confidently expressing what was at that time Belfast's world dominance in the linen trade".
Michael Corr, creative director of architecture and town planning organisation Place NI, has welcomed the news. And he said its positioning close to economic development agency Invest NI was potentially symbolic.
"At Place we are passionate about the careful re-use of empty buildings, through our Vacant to Vibrant programme. What better way to demonstrate investment in the fabric of Belfast than in Ewarts warehouse, right next to Invest NI headquarters?
"This would be consistent with the recommendations of Belfast City Council's draft Belfast City Regeneration Strategy, currently open for consultation, and would build on other new proposals for the area such as The Mutual Hotel, and potential redevelopment of Ireland's tallest office building, Windsor House."
The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society said the building had been on its "at risk" register since 2003. It was given listed status because of its "proportion, ornamentation, plan form and the quality and survival of its interior".
A spokeswoman said: "It is hoped that proposals respect these special historical and architectural attributes."