Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

The bold new vision for city centre of Belfast

Urban renewal expert's master plan for future

Lagan corridor
South centre
North centre

In just 10 years Belfast city centre could be transformed with floating art festivals on the Lagan, more green spaces and our first John Lewis store.

Included in a plan presented to politicians and business leaders yesterday are recommendations for:

  • Our first John Lewis store on Royal Avenue to breathe life back into the formerly grand street.
  • Two new pedestrian bridges to connect City Quays to the Odyssey and Titanic Quarter, and the Gasworks to Ormeau Park
  • A new transport hub at Great Victoria Street as a "green urban gateway to the centre".
  • Shaftesbury Square softened with landscaping and trees.
  • Five-a-side soccer pitches at the new York Interchange.
  • More grade A office space.
  • Increasing residential properties in the city centre.
  • A green and walkable city centre.
  • Revitalisation of the Lagan with lighting and events.

Renowned Canadian planner Joe Berridge presented his vision for Belfast at the Waterfront Hall, emphasising that the capital city is vitally important to the wealth and success of Northern Ireland.

Mr Berridge recently spent three months in Belfast designing his vision and has now handed it to the city fathers to be transformed into action plans by September. He said it could be realised in 10-20 years.

His Urban Strategies report identifies eight policies to develop the city centre: increasing the employment population; increasing the living population; maximising tourism; managing the retail offer; creating a learning and innovation centre; creating a green, walkable, cyclable centre; connecting the city, and creating a shared space.

Mr Berridge noted that Belfast had a low city centre residential population compared with other European cities. He recommended focusing on quality market housing to attract European workers and thirtysomethings.

Titanic Belfast and the Mac were praised as bold gambles which paid off.

But he noted that half of the 600,000 visitors to Titanic Belfast did not go to other Belfast attractions, and said another attraction or event should be established to keep them engaged.

Retail was where Mr Berridge expressed most concern.

"CastleCourt needs investment and there is too much vacancy at Victoria Square," he said.

He said attracting a "major chess piece" into Royal Avenue will revitalise it, suggesting either John Lewis or the relocation of the BBC's headquarters.

He added that the key priorities for Belfast City Council to move ahead included a new transport hub at Great Victoria Street, a key new anchor for Royal Avenue, radical greening to rebalance the city centre, and a major new festival offering.

First Minister Peter Robinson described the plan as "a bold vision for Belfast city centre".

"Belfast is now one of the top-performing and fastest growing cities in the UK," he said.

"The City Council's £277m investment programme is a clear indication of its commitment to keeping that momentum going and to drive Belfast forward.

"As our capital city, Belfast is the heart of the local economy and with output well above the UK average, is already a top performer both locally and nationally.

"These draft plans will ensure that Northern Ireland's already well-developed reputation as a great place to do live, work and do business will continue to grow and lead to further exciting new jobs and opportunities."

Profile

Joe Berridge is one of the world's leading experts in urban regeneration. He helped to design Governors Island in New York harbour as well as Silvertown Quays and Canada Water in London and Manchester city centre.

Originally from Toronto in Canada, Joe has had an integral role in the development of some of the largest and most complex urban regeneration projects in Canada, the US, the UK, and Asia.

Joe was made a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and of the Institute for Urban Design in 2002.

He teaches in the Programme in Planning at the University of Toronto.

Lagan corridor

Once the focus of Belfast, the long-neglected River Lagan is set to be celebrated again.

Joe Berridge has encouraged the "rediscovery of the river" and suggested that it be used more for leisure activities such as kayaking, and suggested the possible installation of a public beach. The plan for the river, termed as the Lagan Corridor, includes a continuous enhanced promenade, landscaping and public art installations.

There will be two new pedestrian bridges connecting City Quays to the Odyssey on Queen's Island, and from the Gasworks to Ormeau Park.

The river will undergo a lighting programme as well as water music and floating art festivals. It will also be a priority bike corridor for commuters and tourists.

South centre

With recent investment focused on Titanic Quarter and Cathedral Quarter, this area – which includes Great Victoria Street, the Golden Mile of the Dublin Road and Shaftesbury Square – has been left looking a little faded.

The anchor for this area is proposed to be a new Great Victoria Street transport hub to become a "green urban gateway to the centre".

This will include a redesign of the current train and bus station to give it a much stronger presence on the street. Shaftesbury Square is set to be softened with landscaping and tree-planting.

This area has been identified as prime opportunity for new Grade A office space development around the new transport hub. Joe Berridge stressed the importance of building more top-quality office space.

The site on Linenhall Street where the BBC currently has its headquarters has been identified as a place where new office space could be built.

The core

This section of the city incorporates the main retail areas stretching from Victoria Square, Royal Avenue and CastleCourt.

Joe Berridge wants to see what he terms a "major chess piece" moved into position on Royal Avenue, such as John Lewis or the relocation of the main BBC building to breathe new life into the area.

With Mr Berridge warning that city centre shopping is in trouble, he has noted that there is too much vacancy in Victoria Square.

He also wants to see a revitalisation of CastleCourt to establish a "dumbbell" of retail activity.

The green space at the front of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution has been identified as a possible location to add to the green spaces in the city centre.

North Centre

This area includes the Cathedral Quarter, one of the most historic parts of the city.

Mr Berridge welcomed the move to bring the University of Ulster from Jordanstown to Belfast, adding that he usually recommends that cities encourage universities into their centres to bring in more people.

He has proposed major new open space around St Anne's Cathedral, and creating a more aesthetically pleasing route up to Crumlin Road Gaol, the road to which he described as currently "super-unfriendly and ugly".

His suggestions include a hostel within the grounds of the gaol and an arts centre in the former courthouse.

As for the new York Street Interchange, he has suggested five-a-side soccer pitches to break up the concrete. He has encourages the development of a creative hub on Donegall Street with links to Central Library, which he described as one of his favourite buildings in Belfast.

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