Spires' shops set to be shut and transformed into centre for church
The Presbyterian Church is closing its Spires shopping mall at Fisherwick Place in Belfast to use the space as an exhibition and conference centre to "fulfil its work and mission".
The traders, who will have to leave when their leases run out, were told of the new developments two weeks ago by email.
Some shopkeepers accused the church of "un-Christian" behaviour, but convenor of the church's property panel the Rev Adrian McClernon said: "We appreciate that this will mean change for the small number of tenants we have.
"We would have liked to have informed them of our proposals sooner, but regrettably due to many and varied reasons, this has not been possible.
"While more detailed work will need to be done, no one will be required to leave before the end of their current contractual agreement."
The centre has around a dozen traders, including design and fashion shops and the popular Spires Restaurant.
The eaterie's proprietor David Weiniger told the Belfast Telegraph: "There is a sense of shock in realising that the business will cease trading here, but we have to be positive and look for new opportunities.
"I want our customers to know that our restaurant will still be in business here until at least the end of the summer of 2017, and during that time we will continue to do our best for them.
"We have many customers from Church House and the surrounding buildings, and we greatly value their support."
There were mixed views from some of the employees in the retail units.
One long-serving staff member said she was "gutted", while another asked: "What can we do? The church is our landlord and if they say so, we have to go.
"We will have to find another place. So far I have not been told any of the details."
The General Assembly accepted the recommendation to redevelop the space from its property panel with little debate.
Mr McClernon said the use of the ground floor for commercial purposes was part of a major redevelopment of Assembly Buildings some 25 years ago.
"As time has moved on, the church now requires the use of the ground floor for a different purpose than was envisaged in 1992 in order to fulfil its work and mission," he added.