Angry heritage campaigners have vowed to seek legal advice after permission to demolish the historic Athletic Stores building for a seven-story retail and residential development was approved.
The 19th century former linen cuff and collar makers’ warehouse is not a listed building but lies within Belfast Conservation Area.
News that Environment Minister Alex Attwood had “with regret” given the green light for the Queen Street building to be knocked down and replaced was greeted with shock.
The minister said he had exhaustively considered options to save the building, but it has serious structural flaws, is leaning into the street and it cannot be refurbished to provide units for modern living and working.
Meanwhile, the minister ruled out proposals to retain the historic facade on a new build, saying the necessary works would affect the character of the building and would not be financially viable.
The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS) branded the minister’s decision “very surprising”, given that he has recently flagged up the vital role that historic buildings play in generating prosperity.
The group said it would be forced to seek legal advice about its option. Planning approval for the building’s demolition was quashed in 2010 after the society sought a judicial review.
“This decision will regrettably have a very strong negative impact,” a UAHS spokesman said.
“This Victorian warehouse helps tell the story of Belfast's industrial past and should have been robustly defended by the department, not just for its own sake, but because of its acknowledged regenerative potential.
“While few large scale developments are economically viable at the present time, we remain of the opinion that re-use of existing buildings provides schemes that are attractive and economically comparable to new-build options.
“In this case we remain of the very firm opinion that it is economically viable to at least retain the building's facade. UAHS regrets that we are impelled to seek legal advice about the options left open to the society at this stage.”
A Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust spokesman branded the decision “deeply regrettable”, adding: “In making this decision, the minister is saying that alleged economic development overrides the crucial role that Belfast's historic buildings provide to the city's identity and sense of place.”
Signatures have begun appearing on an online petition to save the building.
Ciaran Logue, who posted the petition at www.ipetitions.com/petition/saveswanstonsathletic, said: “It strikes many as ridiculous that such a striking building should be demolished.”
Mr Attwood said: “I have worked to see if the building, even the facade could be saved.
“It has been a hard decision but I believe the better one. In coming to this view, I have been mindful of the risky state of the building, the unhealthy state of the property market and the disproportionate and uneconomic costs to even save the facade.
“I don’t come to this decision lightly, but I consider it the better way to proceed.”
Five historic buildings now gone from Belfast’s skyline