Light at the end of the tunnel for communities
A £1.4 million vision aims to transform a long disused network of railway tunnels into a vibrant community hub.
At the heart of the scheme are eight defunct tunnels which run below East Bridge Street, Belfast. They weave their way between the Markets area, next to Belfast Central Station, and Lanyon Place.
Since they fell into disuse around 70 years ago, they became a haven of antisocial behaviour, including a den for drug and alcohol abuse. As a result they were either bricked up or had railings fitted across their entrances, rendering them entirely redundant.
Now, an ambitious scheme aims to create light at the end of the tunnel.
The plan is to refurbish all eight, and in doing so create vital training and employment opportunities for people in the area.
Each tunnel will accommodate a different use - from a creche and coffee shop to a health and support facility, a heritage tunnel and a community space.
Another tunnel will accommodate a bike hire and recycling workshop, which can cater for people arriving at the adjacent Central Station and wanting to use the connecting Lanyon and Laganbank cycle route, one of the busiest in Belfast which last year was used by one million people. The tunnels will be flooded with natural light from a wall of glass at either end.
Behind the exciting plans is the Markets Development Association (MDA).
Its community development worker, Gerard Davison, is involved in the strategic regeneration initiative. He says funding has been applied for from a number of sources: the Social Investment Fund and Belfast City Council City Investment Fund, which could yield up to £700,000.
Planning permission has also been applied for.
He is hopeful that work could begin as early as next year if the funding and planning permission is forthcoming.
The tunnels have already been deemed structurally sound.
"Once the city council get involved here, which will be next week officially, they will put a team around it to develop the plan and conduct air quality, contamination and other tests.
"Once that's all completed under the City Investment Fund, and goes to stage two, they give us 50% of our overall costs which is £700,000 which is us good to start," Mr Davison said.
Laganbank Sinn Fein councillor, Deirdre Hargey, has been closely involved in the project, and says it will go a long way to helping tackle the need in the community, for social, health, training and employment opportunities.
She says the project will also create a sense of connectivity between the Markets area and its close neighbour, the city centre.