Belfast Telegraph

Anger over plans for 'monolith' that will dwarf historic church

By Claire McNeilly

A building in a controversial £400m redevelopment in Belfast city centre has been described as a "massive monolith" that threatens to overshadow the city's oldest church.

Ulster Architectural Heritage (UAH) has warned councillors and planners that it believes "our valuable, fragile and non-renewable built heritage is again under threat" from the proposals for Royal Exchange.

Its concerns echo those of other campaigners, who have argued that the massive retail, office and residential development will damage the character of the historic Cathedral Quarter.

St Anne's Cathedral has already come out against the plans.

The Royal Exchange revamp could include a 27-storey high-rise as part of the ambitious scheme, which it is claimed will create 6,000 jobs.

Developer Castlebrooke has submitted plans for the first stage, including the redevelopment of a 12-acre site around Royal Avenue.

Proposals include retail developments, offices, hotel and landscaping, along with the demolition of seven existing premises and the restoration of listed buildings.

Now it has been warned that a 30m high building known only as 'Block 6' could be built directly behind Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church.

Rosemary Street was once home to no less than three Presbyterian churches, including the oldest surviving place of worship in Belfast.

The First Congregation was established in 1644 in John Street or Hercules Street, before moving to Rosemary Street around 1700, where Methodist founder John Wesley would preach nine decades later.

Harland & Wolff boss and Titanic designer Thomas Andrews, who went to the church with his wife Helen, must have enjoyed its boat-like interior and beautiful woodwork.

It also features a blue plaque dedicated to United Irishmen founder William Drennan, who was born on the site.

The elliptical interior of the building features radial plasterwork on the oval ceiling and a curved gallery on wooden Corinthian columns, which rise above a boat-like arrangement of box pews.

But now it lies at the heart of a major city centre redevelopment.

Nikki McVeigh, chief executive of UAH, set out "outstanding items of concern" to councillors on Tuesday night as highlighted by the Department for Communities' Historic Environment Division (HED).

It said the application is contrary to two planning policies.

"This is particularly, but not exclusively, with regard to the Masonic Halls, Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church, and the effect of this application on the setting of listed buildings," Ms McVeigh said.

She said that "it appears that this detailed statutory advice has been simply ignored".

Ms McVeigh said that 'Block 6' is shown on drawings as being 30m high - around 10m higher than previously permitted - and now closer to the listed church, rendering existing permissions "of little relevance to the consideration of the new plans".

"There was no indication that the planning committee were made aware of this and it may have gone through unnoticed," she added.

Ms McVeigh said HED has described Block 6 as "monolithic, massive and undifferentiated" and "failed to satisfy policy for protection of listed buildings".

"It is our firm view that this application should not proceed without this additional listed building consent," she said.

However, Craig O'Brien of Savills, representing Castlebrooke, defended the scheme and said it had extensively engaged with the public through consultation, and the plans would "kickstart" the rest of the overall development.

He added it would be "Belfast's defence against Sprucefield", and that more than 200 construction jobs would be created.

Belfast Telegraph

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