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Primark to demolish Belfast landmark building

High Street retailer to knock down Belfast’s Commonwealth House in expansion plan

By John Mulgrew

Published 01/09/2016

Commonwealth House in Castle Street, Belfast is situated next to Primark’s flagship store which faces on to Royal Avenue
Commonwealth House in Castle Street, Belfast is situated next to Primark’s flagship store which faces on to Royal Avenue

Concerns have been raised about a High Street giant's plans to knock down a 60-year-old building in the heart of Belfast city centre.

Primark will begin work on a huge extension to its flagship Belfast store next week, which will see the Commonwealth House building knocked down to make way for it.

It's thought the new extension, once built, will mirror the listed Bank Buildings where Primark is currently based.

Primark is expecting staff numbers to rise by 100 as a result of the new extension.

Built in the early 1950s, Commonwealth House was formerly home to Government offices, including the Historic Environment Division, which deals with listed buildings across Northern Ireland.

It's been vacant for some time, and had played host to a budget shoe shop and cafe on the ground floor.

John Anderson of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society said the building has a "certain character of its own" and is "not without merit".

"As it is, it's an imposing official building, and typical pre-War. It's not without merit, even though it's not listed," he said.

"I would imagine it is a sound building, but it has planning permission and fulfilled the criteria.

"Whether the new building is as characterful as the old remains to be seen.

"It has a certain character of its own and there aren't that many buildings of that kind left.

"There's also the sustainability issue. We should not be, as a matter of course, just demolishing buildings.

"Commercial motive is fine, but we are talking on a general basis of Belfast as a city.

"Some modern architecture has a lot of character.

"A lot of buildings have been built since the early 1960s which have no character whatsoever.

"Commonwealth House has its own certain charm."

The development will be one of the largest retail builds in the city since Victoria Square opened eight years ago.

It's understood the new extension will be around 46,000 sq ft in size.

A spokeswoman for Primark confirmed work was due to start on the new store. Bennett Construction and Tusker Demolition have been appointed to start work.

Speaking about the significance of the building, Alan Jones, director of architecture education at Queen's University, Belfast, said the building was "average" for its time.

"It's not particularly significant. It presents a good face on to Castle Street, with the stone work.

"But at the back of it (facing Bank Square) it's exposed, and areas like drainage are visible."

He said it was also unlikely the building's existing floor structure would match up with the current Primark building, which is listed.

He described Commonwealth House as being styled as "Government modernism".

"It's well-mannered, but you turn the corner and the stone stops and the cheap brick starts.

"It's an average building of its time.

"Because of its age, there will be people who worked there who will be sad to see it go.

"Like carpet, some bits wear out, some need to be replaced or removed.

"You could look at refurbishing it. But what Belfast needs is high quality office space, not refurbished.

"I would say, a lot of people look horizontally, and don't look up at it, unlike Primark."

He said he hoped work on the new building would begin soon after demolition, to ensure the site isn't left empty for a long period.

Budget chain Primark continues to flourish despite the recession and tough trading conditions facing other retailers.

Belfast Telegraph

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