BELFAST City Council has given a warm welcome to the Environment Minister Alex Attwood's decision to grant planning permission for the -pound;360m development of the Royal Exchange.
One of the biggest planning applications ever dealt with in Northern Ireland, it will include a huge shopping complex in direct competition with Castle Court and Victoria Square in the area bounded by Royal Avenue, Donegall Street, Garfield Street and High Street.
The historic heart of the city in the 1800s, the area has long been in decline and the development is intended to completely transform it, with a number of buildings being demolished and listed buildings, such as the North Street Arcade's facades being repaired. The Northern Bank building on Bridge Street - Belfast's oldest public building - will also be restored to use and the development will link to the new University of Ulster campus at York Street.
With John Lewis being touted as the most likely anchor tenant for the retail centre, taking about half of the 50,000 square metres available, the plans, put together by Leaside Investments Ltd, also include cafes/bars, a 25 bedroom hotel, over 200 apartments, offices, a new cultural arts centre, car parking for 1,066 vehicles and new public spaces.
Mr Attwood said: "This is tremendous news for Belfast in terms of both the environment and the economy. The proposal aims to create a new environment in the city and revitalise an area of Belfast that has been without meaningful development for a number of years.
"It is estimated that it will bring 3,000 much needed jobs - 1,000 for the construction phase and 2,000 jobs in retail and leisure once completed."
Alderman Christopher Stalford, Chairman of Belfast City Council's Development Committee, said: "This is a vital first step towards realisation of this scheme. There is still a lot of work to do to get the scheme on the ground but it is an indication of the bright future that lies ahead of Belfast and the ambition there is for the city.
"This comes at a time that the city council is in the process of delivering a -pound;150 million investment programme; the University of Ulster is planning its move to the city centre and there is to be significant investment in stadia, representing an investment in the city approaching -pound;1 billion during the next five or six years," he continued.
"The regeneration of Belfast is already under way and the continued success of the city as the economic driver for the region is crucial to the success and well-being of Northern Ireland as a whole.
"City centres are facing all sorts of challenges in these increasingly stringent economic times but today's announcement gives Belfast a real chance of not only maintaining its success but flourishing."
Alderman Stalford said the council would assist in any way it could with delivering projects that will help ensure the future of the city.