Belfast Telegraph

Demolition of a historic Victorian gem - The Kitchen Bar

David Gordon reports on the controversial plan Click here to email us your views

By David Gordon

The Kitchen Bar in Belfast's Victoria Square has been serving drinks to tipplers since 1872.

The Kitchen Bar in Belfast's Victoria Square has been serving drinks to tipplers since 1872.

Located within the city centre conservation area, it has won top awards, been officially lauded for its historical and tourism significance and had its pub grub featured on national television.

But within a matter of months demolition workers will be ripping it to the ground.

To the dismay of heritage campaigners, Environment Minister Angela Smith last month called time on the premises by granting Dutch company MDC planning permission to create a £300m shopping complex at Victoria Square.

The officials who decide on the future shape of Belfast saw a small corner of the city's past pitched against a money-spinning, multi-million pound development.

The money won.

However, as the Belfast Telegraph today reveals, it's not just heritage champions who believe the Kitchen Bar could, and should, be retained alongside MDC's shiny new buildings.

A public inquiry report last year concluded that the pub should stay.

And the DoE's own conservation expert even recommended that MDC should be denied planning approval if it could not accommodate the Kitchen Bar within its blueprint.

The Government wing that is backing MDC, the Department for Social Development (DSD), has accepted that retention is feasible, but says it is not the best option from a commercial standpoint.

Ironically, the DSD's current headquarters, an unattractive 1960s high rise called Churchill House, sits next door to the Kitchen Bar. It is not going to be demolished and is expected to remain as a Government office block.

Early warning

MDC secured a notable victory in 2000 when Social Development Minister Nigel Dodds endorsed its Victoria Square package.

It was selected by Government ahead of other city centre retail schemes, including redevelopment plans for the Cathedral Quarter and extension proposals for CastleCourt.

The Minister's verdict was highly significant. It means the Department for Social Development is ready and willing to compulsorily purchase existing Victoria Square properties from their current owners, thus clearing the way for MDC's demolition and construction squads to move in.

The DSD took its decision after detailed studies on all the city centre options by consultancy firm Drivers Jonas.

The Belfast Telegraph has learned that Drivers Jonas highlighted concerns about the Kitchen Bar as long as ago as December 1999.

In its report to the DSD's Belfast Regeneration Office, the consultants said "care should be taken with features such as the Kitchen Bar".

Elsewhere in the same report, Drivers Jonas recorded a "word of warning" about the Kitchen Bar issue.

Inquiry verdicts rejected

A public inquiry into the Victoria Square development scheme was held in January 2002 by the Planning Appeals Commission, with commissioner Trevor Rue presiding.

His subsequent report concluded that MDC's proposals should not be adopted by Government.

Mr Rue concluded that Victoria Square "is not an area self-evidently in need of comprehensive development".

His report said proceeding with the development scheme "could produce an incoherent policy for retail development in the city centre" and damage the prospects for regeneration in needier districts.

On conservation issues, the inquiry chief said the DSD had not informed its Minister of his statutory duties when he was in the process of backing the Victoria Square scheme.

Mr Rue added: "I conclude that special attention was not paid, as required by law, to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of the conservation area."

The Commissioner's report recommended that the Kitchen Bar and adjacent Victorian properties on Telfair Street should be retained in any redevelopment.

On the pub, he said: "I find the evidence relating to its architectural qualities and historical interest to be impressive."

The public inquiry cost the DSD some £722,000 in consultancy and legal bills. It announced in January this year that it did not accept Mr Rue's verdict and was proceeding with the redevelopment plans.

The inquiry report's findings also did not sway the Department of the Environment (DoE). It approved MDC's Victoria Square planning application last month and is also granting consent for the Kitchen Bar's demolition.

DoE officials say no

The DoE's internal files on MDC's planning application reveal deep concern within sections of the Department about proposed historic building demolition.

In one document, dated May 2002, DoE sites and monuments officer Anne Given referred to the "adverse effect on the historic townscape if locally important and familiar buildings were to be demolished".

She concluded that retention of the Kitchen Bar, Telfair Street and the nearby Ann Street façade was necessary "to reduce the adverse impact of the comprehensive redevelopment scheme".

Also in May 2002, DoE Belfast conservation officer Neil McKillen submitted a report which concluded that MDC's proposals should be refused planning permission.

He stated that, unlike other companies proposing city centre redevelopment schemes, MDC had not become involved in early discussions with planning officials about heritage issues.

"MDC alone produced a scheme with no advance consultation and in the clear knowledge that the Belfast Regeneration Office consultants, Drivers Jonas, had flagged up a warning signal with particular respect to the importance of the Kitchen Bar. This warning was evidently not taken seriously."

MDC did not respond to this criticism, when contacted by the Belfast Telegraph.

Mr McKillen also reported: "With the development of CastleCourt in the 1980s central Belfast lost many fine buildings and strong pedestrian linkages and it is imperative that we protect the diminishing legacy by ensuring that new development is stitched into the urban fabric and actually treats the key components of the built heritage as an opportunity rather than a threat."

Retention 'not commercial'

The DSD accepted at the 2002 public inquiry that retaining the Kitchen Bar within the Victoria Square scheme was an option. But the Department also indicated that this wasn't favoured by MDC.

The inquiry report stated: "DSD believes a development could be brought forward that retains both Telfair Street and the Kitchen Bar but it would not be the best scheme from a purely commercial point of view.

"Such requirements would not render the scheme unviable or defeat the objectives of the scheme but they would compromise the type of development."

In his internal May 2002 report, DoE conservation officer Neil McKillen said MDC had told planning officials that the removal of the Kitchen Bar was "not negotiable".

Mr McKillen stated that, without the demolition, MDC would not be able to create a new split level shopping centre.

He added: "We have here a major development proposal on a perfectly level site where there is no rationale for a split level design other than to create two levels of retail floorspace at prime rental value rather than the traditional ground floor prime with first floor secondary arrangement - it is purely commercially driven and cloaked in the guise of a unique and imaginative concept."

When contacted by this newspaper, MDC had no response to make to this assessment of its proposals.

The Belfast Telegraph, meanwhile, has learned that the commercial success of the Victoria Square redevelopment is not an abstract matter for the DSD.

A confidential Departmental memo in February 2001 stated that the DSD intends to negotiate "an ongoing equity share" in the Victoria Square scheme and a "share in any super profits".

When asked about this shareholding plan, a DSD spokesman said: "Discussions with MDC are still ongoing and it would be inappropriate at this stage to comment on what arrangements the Department might enter into with a developer in relation to the site."

What the developers say

DUTCH company MDC has told the Belfast Telegraph that it hopes to start work on the Victoria Square redevelopment in October this year.

Responding to controversy over the forthcoming Kitchen Bar demolition, a company spokesman highlighted the benefits of its retail centre plans.

He said: "This £300m project will be a legacy for future generations in Belfast, just as the Victorians left us Victoria Square and the Kitchen Bar. The scheme has gained overwhelming backing from the business community and local representatives from across the political spectrum.

"It is one of the largest and most innovative schemes of its kind anywhere in Europe at the present time."

The spokesman added: "The Victoria Square regeneration is going ahead with the full agreement of the owner of the Kitchen Bar.

"We have plans to replace the existing bar in a similar historic building (36 Victoria Square) just a few yards from its current location, should the owner wish to do so."

Bar owner Pat Catney revealed the relocation proposal in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph last month.

He spoke of being "between a rock and a hard place" as he did not wish to lose the Kitchen Bar but also had to think of his staff and customers, as well as his parents who live above the premises. Mr Catney also said he supported the overall Victoria Square scheme.

"My goal is to preserve the Kitchen Bar, its spirit and what it stands for," he added. "But I've been told that we can't remain in the current location - that had seemed a possibility after last year's public inquiry."

The DSD has again defended its decision to overturn the verdict of the Planning Appeals Commission public inquiry.

A spokesman said: "The importance of development of Belfast city centre is reflected in the support of Belfast City Council, Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, Belfast Civic Trust and many others for the Victoria Square Development.

"The Department spent several months carefully considering the issues of concern raised by the commission and the views expressed by objectors to the development scheme. The Minister and the Secretary of State, having reviewed all the evidence, were satisfied that this was the right decision to make."

The DoE likewise stood by its planning approval for MDC, despite the misgivings of conservation and heritage officials within the department.

"All the pros and cons of the proposal had to be weighed up in making this decision, including the demolition of the Kitchen Bar," a spokesman said.

"The Minister decided on balance that the regenerative benefits to the city centre outweighed the losses to the built heritage."

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