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Titanic Quarter: ‘We’re aiming to double investment and reach £2bn by 2035’

It’s been quieter in terms of footfall over the last year or so, but Titanic Quarter has continued to develop and build while the tourists, and many of the workers, are at home. John Mulgrew speaks to its commercial director, James Eyre, about planning to double its £600m investment in the coming decade, office demands post-Covid, bringing forward new schemes and bringing back the visitors


Titanic Belfast

Titanic Belfast

Tony Pleavin

Titanic Belfast

While tourism may have effectively stopped for a year and many offices lay empty, all wasn’t quiet in Titanic Quarter during the pandemic.

The last few months has seen the completion of Amazon’s new distribution centre, and subsequent sale, alongside the building of the new 150,000 sq ft Olympic House office development.

James Eyre has been at the helm of Titanic Quarter for the last 15 years – an area which has been developed by Pat Doherty’s Harcourt Developments.

James says while it has invested £600m thus far, he expects that to double again in the next 15 years – taking total investment to around £2bn by 2035.

And while it’s been quieter of late – with Titanic Belfast largely shut and international tourism largely on hold – he’s confident of a return to numbers, demand for its major office scheme, and continuing the next phase of its development plans.

“Like a lot, during the first lockdown people were going in to the unknown,” he told Ulster Business. “We were busy. We had a couple of big projects going on to site – the first being new Amazon distribution centre for Belfast.

“That started in February 2020. We worked our way through in accordance with guidelines. It opened at the end of August and was then handed over to Amazon.

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“We then agreed the sale of it to UBS (Asset Management Real Estate). That was quite a key piece for Belfast. We might have been home for a lot of it, but the team here were very busy.

“We have Olympic House under construction, and to be completed at end of year. While there has been a lot of talk about the need of offices, the requirement and desire for people to work in high quality accommodation – that isn’t going anywhere.”

The joint venture alongside Belfast Harbour – a relationship which appears somewhat strengthened after Titanic Quarter had criticised the harbour for making it difficult to advance new projects – will soon go to market in a bid to attract tenants, according to James.

“It’s only really as you get towards completion that you pull interest in,” he said. “While we have good interest in it, it will take time. People and occupiers like to be able to touch and feel the space you are building.

“It’s set up very flexibly – floor-by-floor or block-by-block. (It) doesn’t need an anchor tenant, per se.

“As we progress in to the new normal, out of Covid, Belfast is in a very good place. We are seeing some exceptional growth with companies and FDI coming back into the city itself.”

As for future development, a number of schemes are in the works. That includes a new 800 apartment scheme, called Loft Lines, a hotel, and an aquarium.

“Loft Lines has been progressing with Watkin Jones and Lacuna. It’s the next piece in the jigsaw in terms of residential.

“The Arc (apartment building) is fully occupied. There is no shortage of demand. If you look at how Belfast is developing, people working for (big firms), some will look to live in and around the centre of Belfast, and build-to-rent is ideal for those.

“For any major city in the UK and further afield, it’s about getting the balance of commercial and residential space.”

And in terms of overall future investment, James says it’s aiming to double the £600m already spent.

“Over the last 15 years in Titanic Quarter there has been nearly £600m of investment. Looking forward, we would expect to double that again in next 15 years, taking that up to £2bn of development by 2035.

“They are ambitious targets, but they are achievable. It’s all about momentum. I’ve been here 15 years, and there were fewer than 1,000 people working here.

“Now, as a site we could have upwards of 20,000 on a daily basis, between working, living and tourists. Even through Covid, especially the latter lockdown, watching the destination grow as a destination for Belfast, we have doubled up on our pedestrian footfall on site since pre-Covid.”

James says he’s confident of a rebuilding of tourism numbers, but is currently very reliant on the local market. “But as travel starts to happen again, I think Belfast will be on peoples’ lists,” he says.

He says the expansion of the Spar store under the Arc building is a “good success story”. However, a couple of units now sit empty – once housing hospitality businesses, before Covid.

“Olympic House is footfall driven, as there are more developments, that will fill out over time,” he said.

And while there are now several major grade A office schemes coming on to the market – including City Quays 3, The Ewart and The Paper Exchange, along with its own scheme – James says “each product will compete on its own merits”.

“The real marketing won’t start until it is ready for viewing,” he says. “Occupiers will know what they want and where they want to be located.

“Titanic Quarter is in the centre of innovation. Each building will compete on own merits. For the first time it’s giving a level of choice for occupiers. If you look at success at City Quays and Catalyst, they are able to fill them.”