Telegraph Commercial Development Award is backed by Carson McDowell
Carson McDowell, Northern Ireland's largest independent law firm, has praised Belfast City Council's plans to get 66,000 more people living in the city centre by 2035.
The council's target, set out in its Belfast Agenda community plan, has been described by commentators as ambitious. Currently only around 3,000 people live in what is classed as Belfast city centre.
But as Northern Ireland's real estate community prepares to celebrate success at the Belfast Telegraph Property Awards, where Carson McDowell is sponsoring the Commercial Development of the Year award, the firm said it is a worthy initiative.
Dawson McConkey, partner at Carson McDowell, said: "The reasons for the goal are laudable and make sense economically. Having more people living in the city centre should provide a boost to shops, restaurants and bars, reduce the amount of traffic on the roads and potentially help increase productivity.
"Anyone who has been to vibrant city centres around the UK and Europe will know that having more people walking and cycling to work has a big impact on how a city looks and feels."
The firm believes there are two big challenges to overcome if the vision is to become a reality.
"Traditionally, people haven't been rushing to live in the city centre," Dawson said.
"In part that's because of the political climate in the past 50 years, but it's also to do with the fact that Northern Ireland isn't a big place - many of us are happy to commute."
The second major change will be the physical infrastructure. It is estimated as many as 30,000 new homes could be needed to grow the city centre population by 66,000.
Dawson added: "It is a stretching target, but the experience of other European cities suggests it is possible with the right level of investment and a system that's conducive to development."
Both NI Water and the Construction Employers Federation have warned that Belfast's sewers will need significant investment before major development can happen.
But should that problem be overcome, the trend towards city centre living is changing, with a raft of student accommodation projects being built across the city.
The move is helping to get a new generation of young people used to living in the city. But steps have got to be taken to provide more high-quality apartments for them to live, particularly in the build to rent category.
The first of these schemes in the city is now under way near Ulster University with more being proposed.
Dawson said: "It has been great to see the likes of Belfast Harbour, Causeway Asset Management and Oakland Holdings bringing top quality, grade A office schemes to the city in recent years at City Quays, Chichester House and Merchant Square respectively.
"There is a healthy pipeline of office developments coming to market which we are involved in and these could be the places many of the next generation of students will work when they graduate.
"But both the public and private sectors have a lot of work to do in the next few years if they want the council's ambitions for the city centre to become a reality."
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