Loyalist heartland looks to republican stronghold for tips on revamping area
Community leaders on Belfast’s Sandy Row are looking towards republican west Belfast for tips on how to put the “heart and soul” back into their area.
They have been drawing up ambitious plans to transform a derelict former furniture store into a community hub inspired by An Chulturlann on the Falls Road which they hope will be the catalyst for regeneration.
And their dreams for the Gilpins site have moved a step closer to becoming reality after Belfast City Council agreed to fund a £20,000 feasibility study on the redevelopment.
Dr Garnett Busby, operations manager at South Belfast Community Resources, said: “The hope is that we could try and restore the site. There is 45,000 sq ft of retail space and it backs on to Sandy Row.
“We would like to see some retail or social economy type development, with community usage and possibly some social housing on the top floor.
“There may also be the possibility of having some sort of market but we need expertise to help us see what would be financially viable.
“We want a community hub that will help regenerate the area. This community has seen quite a bit of its cultural identity taken away.
“Three paramilitary murals have been taken off the walls and there are plans to change another into a more relevant mural. But they still need to have their culture where the history of the place can be recognised.
“We have been speaking to the tour operators who are concerned about the recent history disappearing but if we had some element of a Chulturlann-type museum then people could come and see the Protestant/loyalist culture.”
The 2.3-acre Gilpins site has been vacant since the shop closed in 2007. It was snapped up a year later by a private developer but controversial plans to build 1,000 apartments, which were opposed by locals, had to be abandoned because of the economic downturn.
It is understood the developer is willing to sell the site.
The Department for Social Development (DSD) and Belfast Regeneration Office (BRO) are currently in the process of procuring consultants to produce a masterplan for Shaftesbury Square and the areas connecting to it — including Sandy Row — and it is thought Gilpins would be included in any list of priorities given its critical location and scale.
Belfast City Council is also undertaking its own regeneration project at Sandy Row as part of the Renewing Routes project.
Senior loyalist figure Jackie McDonald claims redevelopment of the Gilpins site would help put the “heart and soul” back into an area in desperate need of investment.
“People in Sandy Row have been ignored,” he said. “It would help bring people into the area. The people here do not want to lose their identity.
“The tourist trail begins on the Falls Road and when the Maze is developed it will finish there.
“We don’t want people to just go to west Belfast then head straight up the M1. We want visitors to come here and see the history of our culture.
“Sandy Row and the Shankill are two iconic names in Protestant/loyalist culture. But the community has been let down by the powers that be.”
The scheme has cross-party support in Belfast City Hall. Among those who have backed it are Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir.
He said: “I visited Sandy Row at the invitation of Jackie McDonald early last year with representatives of An Chulturlann, the Falls cultural hub, to meet with community leaders and see if we could work with them on their projects.
“I am convinced the investment package for Belfast will not be complete unless it includes newbuild in Sandy Row.
“This is only a baby step forward but at least we are going forward,” said Mr O Muilleoir.