Structural issues that forced flats evacuation could cost £1m to fix
Residents were asked to pay £10k each
Structural problems at a luxury apartment block in Belfast city centre could cost up to £1m to repair, it can be revealed.
Damage to a column prompted a partial evacuation at the Victoria Square complex earlier this year, but on Wednesday all residents were told to vacate the building "immediately for safety reasons".
It is expected it will take five months to complete repairs at the upmarket development called The Residence, which comprises 91 high-spec homes.
Stores in the adjoining Victoria Square shopping centre are open for business as usual, as is the underground car park, despite structural issues affecting the high-end apartments.
The Belfast Telegraph has learned that apartment owners were previously asked to pay £10,000 each to foot the bill for structural repairs at The Residence, amounting to £910,000.
It is possible this bill will ultimately be covered by insurance, but this could not be confirmed yesterday.
A letter issued to residents by building managers McGuinness Fleck on Wednesday said they would have to find alternative accommodation themselves - and warned that they may not be repaid for any costs in doing so.
The firm said it was working to fix the problem "as soon as possible" but warned "the management company is not in a position to give any assurances about costs at this point in time".
One resident, Cian Carroll, who works in Newry but is renting in Belfast, was put up in a nearby hotel on Wednesday by his employer's rental company.
The 35-year-old content manager for STATSports, who lives with his girlfriend in a two-bedroom apartment that costs £975 a month, said they hadn't been instructed to remove all of the contents from their home.
"It was a big shock when the guy came to the door with a letter saying the building was being evacuated and we had to leave at once.
"We only moved in to The Residence at the start of February so we didn't know anything about the structural damage," Mr Carroll said.
"My employer pays my rent so I'm lucky compared to others who're paying mortgages, because they're not being looked after."
Mr Carroll, who is from Dundalk, added that, like himself, 23 residents stayed in a Holiday Inn on Hope Street on Wednesday while some others slept in a Hampton by Hilton hotel across the road.
"I assume we're staying in the Holiday Inn tonight again, but we're going back to the apartment first to pack up for a longer absence," he explained.
Mr Carroll said one of his neighbours told him that apartment owners had been approached for money for repairs prior to Wednesday night's evacuation.
"Residents told me that homeowners were asked for £10,000 each to cover the damages to the structurally unsound column on the fourth floor," he added.
Mr Carroll also questioned why only the apartments were evacuated.
"If this building is structurally unsound they would surely close down Victoria Square and Chichester Street," he speculated, "... and the car park is still available.
"That's why I can't get my head around it. If they're worried about the building coming down why is that? Why haven't they shut the shops?"
A resident, who has lived in the complex for a few months, told the BBC there had been "absolutely no sign of any damage" in her apartment.
Another resident, who moved into the complex at the end of March, said two men called at her apartment on Wednesday evening and handed her a letter saying a structural report had revealed a problem.
The woman said she was told the apartment "wasn't safe" and she was advised to move out as the whole block was affected by the issue.
The apartments at The Residence are highly desirable. Some have been advertised for sale in recent times at £195,000 and £215,000. A three-bedroom apartment was available for rent in the last year at £1,500 a month.
A statement issued by the Victoria Square (Chichester Street) Residential Management Limited, which looks after the 91 apartments at The Residence, said work will "commence on site as soon as possible".
"The estimated cost of the repairs is significant given the technical nature of the work involved," it said.
"It is estimated that the repair work will take approximately 20 weeks."
It added: "The repair work will involve a period of investigation to determine the specific cause of the damage and the parties responsible."
The management company said it was "regrettable that this situation will cause inconvenience to the residents of the apartments".
It added that it "is doing all it can to resolve the matter as quickly as possible".
"However, the absolute priority is to protect the structure of the building and ensure the safety of its residents", it continued.
The statement said that on February 1 the management company was notified about a structural issue within the building that had become visibly evident within two apartments.
"On inspection by structural engineers, it was recommended as a safety measure that 17 apartments along the vertical line of a damaged structural column were to be evacuated," it said.
"This was promptly arranged by the management company with the assistance of its appointed managing agent.
"The relevant public authorities, including Building Control and HSENI (Health & Safety Executive), were notified about the situation."
The management company said that on April 10 it received "a further notification from its structural engineers that all apartments within the residential development were to be vacated immediately as a further safety measure".
It added: "This notification was actioned by the management company and written notices were delivered to each apartment within a few hours."
The statement said that "in order for evacuated residents to return to the building as soon as possible, it will necessary for the management company to apply its funds in the first instance towards the required repairs".
It continued: "The management company is therefore not in a position to make any assurances in relation to costs incurred by the evacuated residents for alternative accommodation."
"It is possible that some residents may be able to return to their apartments sooner than the projected date for completion of the repair works but this cannot be confirmed at this point in time.
"In the meantime, the management company and its agent will continue to liaise directly with apartment owners affected by the required evacuation," the statement added.