Let's put sparkle back into Belfast's main boulevard
Published 21/08/2014 | 07:30
Royal Avenue was developed as the main shopping and office street of late Victorian Belfast. It was the jewel in terms of city streets, but I think the jewel has lost some of its sparkle.
The street is still lined with many excellent Victorian buildings, but the Troubles, the economic downturn and other factors have taken their toll.
City and town centres are feeling the pressure across the British Isles and Belfast is no exception.
In the 17th and 18th centuries Royal Avenue was a narrow street and, in the middle of the 19th century, it was "an unhealthy and unsavoury area", with dozens of butcher's shops.
The town council decided something had to be done and the old street was demolished in 1880-81. In the process, 4,000 people had to be rehoused.
The new Royal Avenue was designed to provide a spectacular boulevard from Donegall Square and the old White Linen Hall up to York Street.
It was a fine example of town planning and it produced a magnificent streetscape that survived almost intact until the mid-1980s.
Royal Avenue was the main thoroughfare for a city that was prosperous and prospering. It was a busy and bustling street filled with shoppers, workers and businessmen, a street full of people from every part of Belfast and beyond.
It was in the heart of the city and the high-quality designs and the attention to detail reflected the importance of what became the premier street in our capital city.
Today, however, Royal Avenue and Donegall Place have lost some of their sparkle. During the day the footfall is lower and in the evening there are few people about. Is that the sort of city centre we want?
As DSD minister I have overseen significant investment by the Northern Ireland Executive, in partnership with Belfast City Council, in the Streets Ahead programme. This has already improved the appearance and attractiveness of Donegall Place.
Work is ongoing in Bank Square and, in the coming years, the next stage of the Streets Ahead programme will enhance Royal Avenue.
The completion of the new campus for the University of Ulster in York Street in 2018 can have a positive impact on the surrounding area, including Royal Avenue.
More than 15,000 students and staff will be studying and working on the campus and this will result in an increased footfall for local shops and businesses. But there is more that can be done.
Look up at the upper storeys of those five and six-storey buildings and it seems that many of those upper storeys are lying empty or underused. I can't imagine that a ground-floor shop requires all that storage space.
Could those empty floors become spaces in which people work or live? Could they become an additional source of income?
I have already tasked officials in my department to bring forward a piece of work on how we might introduce city living into Royal Avenue and other areas of our city centre.
We also need to attract more high-end retail, coffee shops and restaurants back into Royal Avenue. We need a main thoroughfare, a grand boulevard, where residents and tourists alike can spend their evenings enjoying the city centre, during the day and in the evening.
All this will require a joined-up approach by the Northern Ireland Executive. It will also require Government departments to work with the city council and the private sector, retail and other businesses to breathe new life into our city centre.
Large cities have a regional role and Belfast is an economic driver for this region of the United Kingdom. The success, or failure, of Belfast, including its city centre, affects everyone in Northern Ireland.
Sometimes we only recognise the value of something after we have lost it. Let's make sure that we all recognise the value of Royal Avenue and work together to put the sparkle back – before it's too late.
Nelson McCausland MLA is Minister for Social Development