Belfast’s built heritage: under threat, or hindering progress?

The fate of the Swanston Linen Warehouse (aka the Athletic Stores) in Queen Street now very much hangs in the balance as Belfast City Council has signalled it’s approval of the decision to demolish the building and replace it with a mixed use developement of apartments and retail space. The Belfast Telegraph is reporting that a vote of the city council’s Town Planning Committee saw a motion to refer it back to the Planning Service backed by the Alliance and Sinn Féin members but successfully opposed by the DUP, UUP and SDLP. The building is a 19th century cuff and collar linen warehouse by the Young and McKenzie firm and is one of a number of surviving red brick buildings on Queen Street (check out street view on Google maps if you need your memory jogged).

The campaign to prevent demolition has been going since 2009. A letter on the web from the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and the Forum for Alternative Belfast outlines the case for preservation (see here on the Place Blog). You can also checkout the various links on the Save Swanstons Linen Warehouse pages on Facebook or visit the (rarely updated) Save the Athletic Stores blog.

The crux of the debate requires a judgement on the relative value of the retention of the building, and the extent to which it contributes to the architectural heritage and or character of the conservation area. It also means weighing up the measurable costs of preservation over the more elusive and indefinable, yet much more final, cost to the overall aesthetics and legacies that such buildings add to the city.

The BBC are carrying statements from some of those for and against the proposed demolition which give a rough outline of both arguments. One of those opposed to the demolition is Sinn Féin councillor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir who the BBC quote as saying:

Sinn Fein believes this building is a jewel in the crown of Belfast and epitomises the unique character Belfast needs to protect if it is to market itself as a distinct, modern European city respectful of its past while moving into the future. We are particularly disappointed that neither developers nor planners engaged with the Forum for Alternative Belfast, Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS) or Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust to discuss their detailed proposals on how this key building could be saved. We will continue to support efforts to prevent this building, and the city’s heritage, being bulldozed.

The BBC also report the DUP’s Ruth Patterson (who believes the building looks beautiful but is structurally unsound) as saying:

If we were to refurbish it as it stands at the moment it would cost over £4m, that would only give back a building worth £1.75m. That in anyone’s book is economically unviable. The developer very much wants to put back a building that’s in keeping with the area.

Environment Minister Alex Attwood had previously said that he would determine the future of the building. In a statement, also reported by the BBC, a DoE spokesman said:

Following the decision by Belfast City Council the Environment Minister Alex Attwood has asked officials to provide him with information in relation to DOE planning’s recommendation to approve the application.

One group who could still make life difficult for the minister is his own Historic Buildings Council (an advisory group on the exercise of his powers) who could list the building, thus forcing him to go against their advice if he wishes to recommend demolition.

The architectural and archaeological legacy of Belfast city centre is relatively unknown to most of the city’s inhabitants. For instance, how many could point to the original location of Belfast Castle? Historic architecture is a finite, fragile and dwindling resource. Whilst due process has been followed in this case, has a sufficient argument for demolition actually been made? Or should we even care?

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