Belfast Telegraph

Church slams Belfast's £400m scheme to redevelop Royal Exchange area

By John Mulgrew

The Church of Ireland has come out against a £400m Belfast redevelopment scheme, calling for it to be refused the go-ahead.

The flagship project focuses on a 12-acre site around Royal Avenue in the city centre, formerly known as Royal Exchange.

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

Developer Castlebrooke has now submitted outline plans for the scheme, which include the redevelopment of a 12-acre site based around Royal Avenue, North Street and Donegall Street, including around St Anne's Cathedral.

But now, the Bishop of Connor, the Rev Alan F Abernethy, has written to Belfast City Council planners saying it objects to the plans, and is "concerned at the lack of attention that has been paid to preserving or enhancing the character of the area included in the application".

He wants the council to turn down the huge scheme.

The project is said to be the "largest ever single redevelopment in Belfast city centre".

"The area in question comprises a historic street pattern with buildings of traditional scale, grain and appearance," a letter from the bishop said.

"We feel it is essential that these qualities be preserved. We would ask that particular thought be given to how the proposals align with current planning policy statements.

"We are concerned at the lack of attention that has been paid to preserving or enhancing the character of the area included in the application.

"In particular, the impact it will have on the streetscape around St Anne's Cathedral."

He said the cathedral was "an iconic building within the city and as such the open space around it should be preserved to enable a full appreciation of its aesthetic qualities; it is our contention that this proposal goes against" relevant areas of planning policy, affecting the setting of a listed building.

The Royal Exchange plans include a number of retail developments, offices, hotel and landscaping, along with the demolition of seven existing premises, and the restoration of listed buildings.

Developers say as many as 900 construction jobs could be created during the building work.

It is understood those behind the scheme are choosing to knock down fewer buildings, as outlined in an initial masterplan.

In his letter, Bishop Abernethy said the proposals "in the immediate vicinity of the Cathedral are not sympathetic to the character of Cathedral and are inappropriate for this context".

He said: "We are not in favour of reducing the amount of open social space in the Cathedral Quarter as there is a lack of such space already.

"We consider the application to be contrary to planning policy and would urge Belfast City Council to reject this proposal in its current form."

A spokesperson for the board of St Anne's Cathedral said: "A meeting between the developers and members of the Board including the new Dean of Belfast will take place in the new year and we are not in a position to comment at this stage."

Meanwhile, the Belfast Civic Trust said it is "strongly opposed" to a huge 27-storey building, which could become part of the plan.

In a letter to planners, it said the "application appears to envisage a height" of 27 to 28 storeys.

"We are incredulous that an application has been made for a building of this height in the middle of a conservation area. Even more so when it is in the middle of the historical core of the city.

"This building overshadows the listed and very historically important Exchange building."

There had been a backlash from conservation groups, with the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society saying the scheme "perpetuates Belfast's complete lack of a coherent plan to enhance the city's unique selling points with quality architecture".

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