Fionola Meredith: Let's keep pedestrian zone around Primark building for a much healthier and happier Belfast
If one good thing has come from that terrible fire, it's the pleasure of people-only streets, says Fionola Meredith
When Notre Dame cathedral caught fire last month, it wasn't long before local jokers on social media were making quips about Paris's Primark moment.
Leaving aside the fact that the French building is a beautiful medieval cathedral of extraordinary cultural, religious and historical significance, while the Belfast one is just a rather imposing former bank in which one could buy cheap knickers, there's a tiny smidgen of truth in the comparison.
Because what nobody had fully realised, until the devastating fire tore through Bank Buildings last summer, was that Primark was integral to the life of Belfast city centre, drawing shoppers in like a super-charged magnet.
When the store was reduced to a grim, soot-blackened shell, footfall in the centre of town dropped dramatically. People realised that Primark wasn't just a purveyor of affordable fashion. Presiding over Castle Place, it played an important role in keeping the heart of the city busy, animated, dynamic. It meant something more than the sum of its parts.
In the first days after the fire, it was clear that the authorities were struggling to cope with an unprecedented situation - unprecedented in peacetime Belfast anyway. But gradually they began to get their act together. Some enlightened soul amongst the council officials must have realised that when the heart of a place is wrecked, the most important thing to do is find a way to restore a sense of safety, comfort and pleasure, so that people want to come back and spend time there again.
So the sad, ugly sight of burnt-out Bank Buildings was concealed behind brightly-coloured screens and the cordoned-off areas - now spaciously empty of traffic - became places for people, not vehicles.
There was fake grass and potted plants and little benches for people to perch on, and even a pop-up play park at Castle Place. It was all a bit ramshackle and flung together, but it worked. Locals and tourists alike loved it.
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Suddenly Belfast city centre seemed friendlier, more relaxed and at ease with itself. There was a new sense of freedom and noticeably fresher air. Nobody was choking on bus fumes or worrying that their kid was going to get run down by a passing car.
The grim old war-wounded city was at last letting down her hair and there was a surprisingly poignant charm about it.
And it worked. The shoppers came back. Pre-Christmas footfall, it was reported, was up by almost 20% on the previous year - a remarkable feat.
But now, it seems, the fun is over. Belfast City Council has called time on the pop-up parks. Soon the traffic will be roaring back. You won't be able to sit in the sunshine in Castle Place, licking an ice-cream cone, to the sound of children laughing and playing around you, because you'd be sitting in the middle of a busy bus route.
We do have a choice, however. Instead of obediently accepting that things must go back to the way they were before the Primark fire, because that's the way it's always been, we can say no.
We can say that we have seen the way our city looks and feels when only people occupy these central streets - and we like it. We want it to stay this way.
Northern Ireland Greenways has started a petition, which has already been signed by many thousands, calling for the existing pedestrian zone around Primark to be made permanent. Quite rightly, it says that the city has been able to function perfectly well during this time - "buses still move, cars still park, deliveries get made".
So with a little judicious adjustment, the current scheme will definitely work. As NI Greenways points out, access could be granted at certain strictly limited times for loading and servicing vehicles and, while serious concerns have been raised about the impact on disabled people, priority parking bays could be created in the near vicinity. Such problems are always soluble, if the will is there.
While the authorities are at it, they should go ahead and pedestrianise the Cathedral Quarter too. The endless stream of taxis bumping over the cobbles of Hill Street on a Saturday night as crowds throng around them is a crazy sight. This is supposed to be the cultural quarter, not the carbon dioxide quarter. How anybody hasn't got their toes run over - or worse - already is beyond me.
If there was one good thing to come out of the terrible Primark fire, it would be the permanent pedestrianisation of Belfast city centre.
As Van Morrison once said: "Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?"