Belfast is set for store wars after the Environment Minister gave the green light to an ambitious new £360m retail and leisure project.
Alex Attwood said the wide-ranging plan — which will go beyond shops to include 200 apartments and a 25-bedroom boutique hotel — is designed to “bring life back to the city centre” and underpin its role as the “regional trading capital”.
The innovative 11-acre Royal Exchange scheme will be the third major commercial complex in Belfast, alongside neighbouring CastleCourt and Victoria Square shopping malls.
With moves to secure an all-important anchor tenant, such as John Lewis, already under way, industry experts are predicting fierce competition among the three big players in the years to come.
Mr Attwood told the Belfast Telegraph he believed it was “absolutely the right time” for the development, which is one of the biggest planning applications ever made in Northern Ireland.
“Whilst there are a lot of ‘To Let’ signs in the city centre, and whilst the economic picture is not great, you need to provide hope and create opportunities so that on the far side of recession Belfast demonstrates that it is open for business,” he said.
“Planning approvals like this demonstrate that Belfast is open for business.”
First announced in 2006, the multi-faceted scheme focuses on the regeneration of rundown and semi-derelict areas between Royal Avenue and the Cathedral Quarter — although it will not be open for business until 2018 at the earliest.
It is estimated that it will bring 3,000 jobs in total to Belfast — 1,000 for the construction phase and a further 2,000 jobs in retail and leisure upon completion.
The complex — which will be constructed in the north east quarter in the area bounded by Royal Avenue, Donegall Street, Garfield Street and High Street — also comprises an arts centre, bars, cafes, offices, and parking space for 1066 vehicles.
It provides up to 50,000 sq m (539,000 sq ft) of new retail floorspace, almost half of which will be taken up by a single ‘anchor’ department store.
Mr Attwood said the aim was to compound Belfast’s reputation as a major European regional city by having a “concentration of retail” and leisure facilities to attract more visitors.
He said that, not withstanding the difficulties of the current economic climate, he believed Royal Exchange would be a success.
“I don’t see that this is wishful thinking. This planning permission is about giving back life to the historic part of the city.
“The question is do we just leave it to fall in on itself, or are we going be decisive and say ‘no’, we’ve got a bigger ambition for this part of the city and the citizens for this city.”
He added: “I am confident because the retail information suggests there are opportunities and the retail intelligence suggests there are retailers not here who would like to come and who might come even in recession.”
Prestigious anchor tenant crucial to proposal
The decision to allow plans for Royal Exchange to go ahead paves the way for a third major retail development that will completely rejuvenate Belfast.
It would also do away with an area of the city centre which has been neglected and allowed to become rundown in recent years.
The north-east quarter is in dire need of a all-encompassing facelift, with many buildings in a state of disrepair or ruin, including the once popular North Street Arcade which was destroyed by a fire in 2004.
Under the new proposals, several listed buildings and facades of architectural value — including Belfast’s oldest public building, the former Northern Bank building on Bridge Street — will be preserved or restored.
But realisation of the ambitious project will also involve the demolition of a number of existing buildings in the area which is contained within the boundaries of Royal Avenue, Donegall Street, Garfield Street and High Street.
Crucial to Royal Exchange’s success is its anchor tenant, and developers are hoping to attract a big name such as John Lewis.
The retailer has been attempting to set up shop at a site at Sprucefield near Lisburn for years but has become embroiled in a long-running planning row.
A public inquiry into the plans is due to restart in early 2013, having been adjourned in June 2010, although the Environment Minister Alex Attwood has previously indicated that he will make an announcement on the future of the bid within the coming days.
Yesterday Mr Attwood told the Belfast Telegraph that there were at least two other large retailers who were considering Royal Exchange as a potential location in the future.
Cafes, bars, a 25-bedroom boutique hotel, more than 200 apartments, offices and a new cultural arts centre will be created under the auspices of the new scheme.
There will also be a two-storey underground car park under the complex to facilitate more than 1,000 vehicles.
In addition to the creation of public spaces, new streets will also be constructed, including a passageway between CastleCourt shopping centre and the entrance to Royal Exchange’s anchor tenant.
The 11-acre project — comprising 11 blocks — is one of the biggest applications to be brought before planners in Northern Ireland.
It cost in the region of £1m to put together, runs to 11 volumes and it is understood it had to be delivered to planners in a van.
The company behind the proposed development is Leaside Investments — a consortium of two Northern Ireland firms, William Ewart and Snoddons.
The Dutch firm ING had been part of the consortium but withdrew some time ago.
Mixed welcome for scheme
The best retail and leisure development in years — or a potential white elephant?
Opinions were divided after plans to establish a new £360m city centre scheme were given Environment Minister Alex Attwood’s approval.
Christopher Stalford, chairman of Belfast City Council’s development committee, said the ambitious project was an indication of a bright future that lies ahead.
“This is a vital first step towards realisation of this scheme,” he said.
“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.
“Belfast City Council has played a major part in the regeneration of the city during recent years and the launch of our investment package earlier this year was a clear statement of our commitment to work in partnership with the private and public sectors to ensure success.”
The Forum for Alternative Belfast is a community interest company that campaigns for a better and more equitable built environment.
One of its directors, Mark Hackett, is an architect, formerly a partner in Hackett Hall McKnight, who won the competition to design the MAC arts centre. He said there are flaws with the scheme.
“We believe it’s an out-of-date model for a start. It’s a model that relies on one large anchor tenant.
“Victoria Square is already seen as an outdated model. CastleCourt was an incredibly outdated model when it was built and now it looks like a complete anachronism, because it turns its back on three sides of the city.”