Belfast Telegraph

New city planning vision unveiled

A glass roof for City Hall and a new visual arts gallery are among radical proposals outlined in a planning vision for Belfast city centre.

The report undertaken by international experts sets out a potential blueprint for developing the city when councillors assume planning powers next year as a result of the shake up of local government.

Joe Berridge, a partner with planning specialists Urban Strategies, will tomorrow unveil the ideas to a variety of stakeholders at a conference in the Waterfront Hall.

The report was commissioned by the council and, after a period of consultation over the summer, a final set of proposals will be recommended to councillors to adopt what will essentially be a new policy framework to shape future planning decisions.

Mr Berridge, who has a track record of working on urban redesigns in Canada, the US and UK, welcomed the fact city councillors were to take over responsibility for planning.

"The first thing they have got to do is really present the city centre as being a very prosperous, healthy, economically vibrant, interesting place that people will want to live in, work in, and visit and enjoy," he said.

"What it does is give a clear city voice.

"There are always choices, tricky choices and it is better it is the city making those choices if they are things that directly affect the city."

The document stated that Belfast had made strides toward regeneration in recent years but that it still had "some way to go" in comparison to other European cities of comparable size.

"It needs more; more people working and living in the centre, more visitors, more attractions, more commerce, more jobs, more street life and nightlife, more trees, more in-migrants and more development.

"More serenity, more bustle, more buzz.

"It is the combination of all those elements that makes a great city centre, that provides the self-fuelling chemistry for regeneration."

The report set out a series of policy targets including increasing employment and population; maximising tourism potential; improving retail options; fostering more learning and innovation; creating a "green, walkable and cyclable" city; improving arterial links with rest of the city and promoting more shared space.

Specific proposals include glassing over the open courtyard in the centre of City Hall to create a novel exhibition space; transforming the run down Royal Exchange block with the potential of attracting a major retail client or even relocating the BBC's operations to the site if the corporation decided to move; and building two new pedestrian bridges over the Lagan.

In terms of the long-running tug-of-war saga over whether John Lewis should come to Belfast or Sprucefield, Mr Berridge said he was firmly in favour of the city option.

"If a John Lewis were considering coming to Northern Ireland I think it's pretty important that that be located in the city centre," he said.

The consultants claim that Belfast, with the exception of the Titanic centre, does not present visitors with enough reasons to take a trip there and had not carved out a distinctive brand for itself.

To make the city more competitive in the tourist market, the report proposed the development of a new contemporary visual arts museum and the establishment of a regular literary festival to showcase Belfast's cultural heritage.

"Titanic revealed that there were half a million people interested in coming to a destination in Belfast which frankly half a dozen years ago people might not have thought," Mr Berridge said.

"But only about a half of the people who visited Titanic, slightly less actually, do anything else in Belfast - so you want to have the 'what's next to do' sorted out.

"There is a question about what that might be.

"I think there is potentially space for what you might call another ticketed attraction, be it a gallery, a museum, an exhibition of some kind but I think there is also kinds of general tourism that could be cranked up."

Mr Berridge cited food tourism and nearby adrenaline activities such as rock climbing, wind surfing and canoeing as other potential marketing points.

In regard to innovation and skills, the blueprint proposed the provision of low cost, bare bones office space for start up businesses wanting to get off the ground.

The consultants also flagged up concern about a lack of green spaces in the city and suggested the area north of the Cathedral Quarter could be regenerated as such.

Mr Berridge expressed concern that busy roads were cutting certain areas off from the city centre, particularly flagging up Oxford Street near the River Lagan.

"I think the balance between what I call asphalt and pedestrian and biking activity needs to be re-jigged," he said.

"It's particularly obvious at Oxford Street.

"The way Oxford Street cuts the city off from the river.

"The river is a glorious thing but it doesn't play in the city in the way like the Clyde does (in Glasgow) or the Tyne does in Newcastle and we've got to make sure that those roads that are pretty fearsome can get greened and softened - still do what they have to do and move people around, but don't create that sort of hardness that a lot of the city centre has."

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