A landmark building in the heart of Belfast is to be converted into student housing in an investment of £16m – the first mass student accommodation in Northern Ireland developed by the private sector.
The mammoth building at College Square East is set to house 400 student beds after Belfast Metropolitan College sold it to Welsh construction firm Watkin Jones and Sons for an undisclosed sum.
It follows earlier speculation that the sale of the listed five-storey site – vacant since 2011 – was to be made into a hotel.
The sold sign has been erected on the building following interest in the sale from investors from across the globe.
The purchaser is a ninth generation family-run construction company specialising in private student digs across the UK.
Constructed between 1902 and 1906, the site was occupied by the college until its relocation to the Titanic Quarter three years ago. The firm will now seek planning permission for the venture, which will also require listed building consent in order to convert it.
The building already had planning approval for conversion into a hotel. Watkin Jones said it intended to employ local contractors for the construction work and hoped to have work completed for the 2016 academic year.
The landmark project has been tipped as having the potential to have a significant impact on Belfast's retail and leisure sectors by providing a substantial boost to the economy.
Company chairman Glyn Watkin Jones said his company had been "watching, monitoring and researching the Belfast student accommodation market for over five years".
"We are aware of the under-supply of purpose-built accommodation in the city and the ongoing issues in the Holylands.
"We believe this £16m investment to deliver around 400 beds spaces will offer a high-quality product which is currently not available for the students studying in Belfast.
"With the new University of Ulster campus under way, Queen's and Belfast Met continuing to grow, along with Belfast attracting significant investment, we see this as an ideal time to enter the Belfast market. We have found what we believe is the ideal building and location for student accommodation in the city.
"We have much experience of converting listed buildings for student accommodation and are excited about the potential end product."