Athletic Stores building demolition condemned
A Government decision to allow the demolition of one of Belfast's best-known historic buildings has been attacked by conservationists.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood said he explored all the options before giving the green light to knocking down the 19th century building that houses the Athletic Stores.
Campaigners said they will explore if a late legal action could help them save the Victorian-era linen cuff and collar makers' warehouse at Queen Street in the city centre.
An apartment and retail development with an underground car park is to be built on the site, after the minister said the building had structural problems and saving its ornate facade was not financially viable.
But Rita Harkin of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society said the group was deeply disappointed that the building, which is within a conservation area, could be lost to future generations.
"His decision is very surprising given how in recent months minister Alex Attwood has strongly flagged up and emphasised the vital role historic buildings play in generating economic prosperity," she said.
"This decision will regrettably have a very strong negative impact.
"Numerous studies have shown how reusing our built heritage to meet modern needs provides a strong basis for the long-term revival of cities, towns and villages."
She added: "This Victorian warehouse helps tell the story of Belfast's rich industrial past and should have been robustly defended by the department, not just for its own sake, but because of its acknowledged regenerative potential."
The heritage society said it will seek legal advice about the options left open.
Mr Attwood said that after an "exhaustive assessment of all issues from every angle", planners had given planning permission for a retail and residential development on the site.
He said the building is largely vacant, has serious structural flaws and is leaning into the street.
The minister said: "I said that I would call in the papers on the Athletic Stores application. I did. I interrogated the Belfast Planning Team on the application.
"I asked for facts and figures to be produced and tested. I visited the location twice and on the second occasion I invited representatives from the Ulster Architectural Historical Society to join me.
"I wanted to demonstrate that any decision - whatever its nature - was made having looked at the issue from every side.
"In the final analysis, I conclude that the planning decision for a retail and residential development is the better one, unfortunate though that is.
"I have worked to see if the building, even the facade, could be saved. It has been a hard decision but I believe the better one.
"In coming to this view, I have been mindful of the risky state of the building, the unhealthy state of the property market and the disproportionate and uneconomic costs to even save the facade."