Belfast has tunnel vision that could help breathe new economic life into old rail arches
They were once filled with heaving masses of cattle and sheep on their way to the abattoir.
Now a series of derelict tunnels running beneath one of Belfast's busiest roads could soon be buzzing with businesses, fostering a new entrepreneurial spirit.
Belfast City Council has put out a call for innovative ideas which would bring the network of disused tunnels - next to the Markets - back to life.
It wants to hear from groups, companies and retailers interested in taking up space within the Lanyon Tunnels, which run beneath East Bridge Street in the city centre.
The eight arches connect the Markets with Belfast Central Station, St George's Market and Lanyon Place and were once used by traders as holding pens for livestock on their way to the slaughterhouse in Stewart Street.
Councillor Declan Boyle, chair of the council's strategic policy and resources committee, said: "These tunnels are right at the heart of two of the city's biggest redevelopment projects - the expansion of Belfast Waterfront and the addition of grade A office space on the former Maysfield Leisure Centre site.
"Their refurbishment could improve access within this key area, as well as connecting the local community to the many opportunities being created right on their doorstep. This is a really exciting opportunity for entrepreneurs and creative thinkers to help turn a derelict and neglected space into something innovative."
Funding is being sought to undertake the refurbishment work needed to open up the tunnels and make them suitable for potential retail, light industrial, office or leisure use. Following refurbishment, it is anticipated that units will then be made available to prospective tenants on a lease or licence basis.
Paddy Lynn, who trades in antiques at nearby St George's Market, says he ran around the tunnels as a child when they were part of the old cattle market.
"The tunnels were used to prevent the animals going onto the main road," he said.
"There were 10 markets until 1982. I know the tunnels were built in 1854 and were part of the East Bridge to east Belfast. The main bridge going over the river collapsed in 1865 and now it's called the Albert Bridge.
"The tunnels were used for driving livestock to the Belfast City abattoir up until 1970 and then it became a fruit and vegetable store for the Mays Market.
"Once the fruit and vegetable store moved to Boucher Road, the tunnels became derelict."
An initial expression of interest process is now under way for potential units within the site, with ideas invited by Wednesday, February 17.
Belfast City Council says it has already secured planning permission to refurbish the tunnels, and funding is being sought from the Office of Fisrt Minister and Deputy First Minister's Social Investment Fund to finance the refurbishment work, following an economic appraisal of the overall scheme.