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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  • Many younger people will associate the Athletic Stores with the building but in fact in the late 1960s early 1970s this was actually a restaurant ……with a kinda “alpine bavarian” feel to it. Quite “bohemian”.
    The Athletic Stores is not easy on the eye at all.
    Not sure that Mairtín will be all that happy to have used the phrase “jewel in the crown”.
    But surely Sinn Féin talking about preserving Belfasts architectural heritage is risible when people associated with Sinn Féin did so much to destroy Belfasts architecture.

  • The Raven

    Equally, Fitz, it always worries me when I hear any part of the DUP arguing on behalf of “the developer”. Though for what it’s worth, I always recommend to people who visit Belfast wanting to see architecture to look up. Plenty still there just above street and blast level.

    The building certainly isn’t easy on the eye. It requires work. The signage alone should never have been allowed. One thing that is considerably lacking in NI and indeed, further afield is trained, *time-served* restoration workers. NIEA has a list, but I’m suss of anything that hasn’t got a recommendation or quality assured back up to it. Is there an opportunity there? I see single and double pane windows where once there might have been sliding sash. There’s a start.

    Perhaps it doesn’t even need that depth of work. It’s certainly in a part of Belfast that needs a lick of paint. But is there a need to pull this down for more “luxury” “apartments” in another “exclusive” “development”? I think not.

    Old doesn’t mean valued. But it *is* without doubt a landmark building, that with a little TLC could be much more of a valued landmark. As I mentioned on another thread, there’s been too much reliance on the options of knock it down/slap a bungalow up/ignore planning/replace stone with glass etc in this part of the world. Preservation costs money. A downturn in the economy and a decrease in buildings value is not, however, an excuse to start ripping down buildings which – for the pockets of the few – are in the way of “progress”.

    It would be a shame to see yet another stone and brick corner of Belfast transform into another steel and glass edifice, which depreciates to the value of its steel and dust after a 25 year period. I have to say, the English and to a lesser degree, Scots just wouldn’t be having this debate. Any ideas why it’s not already listed?

    John, thanks for posting this.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m relieved to see this become the subject of of political debate. Too much has been left to chance on this score.

    The messs that is Laganside is perfect case of a population leaving everything to planners and failing to engage. Beyond the Waterfront and the law courts, we have a large scale failure to engage imaginatively with the space.

    On the Athletic Stores I have no strong feelings one way or t’other. But it’s a good debate to have. I’d encourage anyone with more specialist knowledge to get involved!

  • Mick Fealty

    FJH, that’s a classic playing of the man rather than engaging with the ball!

  • aquifer

    A pretty ordinary Victorian building. Goodbye.

    The apartments will have to be bigger than the usual shoeboxes to attract any interest.

  • edgeoftheunion

    Ah yes, Laganside. I’m not sure the population failed to engage as much as they were excluded. However the upside of Laganside should not be missed. Custom House Square, Clarendon Dock and the Harbour Commissioners’ Offices are pretty good bits of restoration as anyone lucky enough to see “The Boat Factory”(Adult version) in the Festival will know.

  • john

    We have such a good history of preserving our past.
    Look at how we have improved our city over the years!!

    As someone pointed out earlier a lot of these steel and glass buildings will look rubbish in a few years. We are a bit pathetic at protecting what little heritage we have and there are few laws around to protect it. I seem to remember a couple of incidents in Belfast not too long ago were the developer would just knock down a protected building anyway because the fine was so low!!

  • John Ó Néill

    The Raven – it’s probably not listed because it is in the conservation area. According to BH14 in PPS6 the Department will normally only permit the demolition of an unlisted building in a conservation area where the building makes no material contribution to the character or appearance of the conservation area, which is supposed to be sufficient protection in itself (and means that an excessive listing exercise doesn’t have to be carried out for every conservation area). So general practice is to prioritise listing buildings which are not protected under any other scheme.

  • Not sure whether it was the IRA or developers who are most to blame for the destruction of Belfast’s architectural heritage, but there is little enough left to see more destroyed needlessly. No idea what is left inside of note, but at least keeping the facade would provide some reference to the city’s past. We are so often quoted the need to promote heritage to help build our tourist industry, so how would another box help in that cause?

  • Cynic2

    I love Belfast but this area is a dump. I see no architectural merit in this site and the building is unsound. The focus should be on the quality of what replaces it, not the fact that it happens to be old

    The SF quote is amazing humbug given their associates role in demolishing so much of the built heritage including so many bombs at this site itself over the years!!!!

  • Drumlins Rock

    FJH & Raven, i know the images you have painted both jumped into my mind too during the report, know nothing about the politics but often it is simply who arrives at the door first in planning issues, the objector or the applicant. At least both sides are being put. I’m in the architecture trade and do rate the building as worth saving if at all possible, but possible has a monetary value too, it is not worth public money invested with so many other LISTED buildings of higher value at greater risk (look up the buildings at risk catelogue by UAHS) just because they are not as visible in the city centre.
    I wonder that the Facade retention compromise has not been suggested, but both sides seem to rule it out. The architectural heritage sector has been the cinderella department for too long, it is vital to our tourist industry and should be much more proactive and better funded. Round the corner is a real jewel under threat, not a cullinan diamond or black Prince Ruby of course but a gem none the less, I refer to the now abandoned Tech building, it is an incedibly fine building inside as well as out and “plans” may exist but action has to be ensure at any cost to ensure it survival.

  • stewart1

    quick question: Who own’s the Athletic stores building, the developer?

  • The Raven

    John, thanks for responding. It actually raises another point. Would the demolition of this (substantial) building – and subsequent replacement by another modern one – have a detrimental effect on the preservation of that area’s character? I would argue yes.

    On the flip side, I’d like to reiterate what I mentioned earlier. Old doesn’t necessarily mean valued. But I would urge people if they’re passing this building over the next few days to try and visualise it with new appropriate windows, re-pointing, removal of obtrusive signage, more sympathetic design of the existing retail space and a new roof. It makes a hell of a difference in the mind’s eye.

    We don’t give enough powers to and funding to NIEA’s built heritage division – as evidence by the catalogue that DR mentions above, and too often we have left it to noble but near-voluntary organisations such as UAHS to carry the flag into battle.

    DR, you also mentioned the Tech – I don’t know who technically owns it now, but I hope it remains in some shape or form. There are many others. I’d love to see North Street Arcade re-instated. There are other buildings down there worth a second look – looking upwards, of course. The building opposite the Ulster Hall is also in dire need of work. So many, so little time and money…

    PS Everytime I see the Sinn Fein-IRA-demolition argument, it reminds of the Tory “fault of the previous administration” wail that goes up everytime something goes wrong. We have what we have.

  • Dublin

    The key point where the Swanston Linen Warehouse is concerned is that it doesn’t need to be an exemplar of architectural design to be of value to the city, and to be worthy of protection. The collective architectural and townscape value of the historic buildings in a conservation area is the primary factor that makes them worthy of protection and, in this case, the historical significance of Belfast as a former world centre for linen manufacture adds hugely to the collective value of this type of less architecturally exceptional historic building stock. I’m not familiar with the details of the arguments that have already been put forward in this case, but the new development will no doubt provide jobs in the short term and will probably be cheaper than full conservation of the warehouse.

    Heritage value is multi-dimensional: some of it is economic, and some social. See here
    The trouble with the argument for conservation of this building is that it is incredibly difficult to quantify some aspects of architectural heritage value in econometric terms, and therefore it’s difficult to compare the value of its retention with the value of the new development. Government decisions need to be justified in economic terms, so it’s very difficult for government to make a decision to retain and conserve on the basis of an argument that’s not fully economically quantifiable. The considerable long-term social value potential of this building – and others like it – must be emphasised if they are to be retained. I just don’t think this argument has been put sufficiently cogently in a way that people are willing to run with, there clearly isn’t the political will for retention, and the short-term economic gain from the construction of a new building is clear.

  • Neil

    I reckon the red brick buildings look well when they’re all done up and restored. What we don’t need is another glass and multi coloured metal monstrosity like the two dormant building sites on Lanyon Place. But that’s exactly what we’ll get if the developers have their way.

  • John Ó Néill

    The Raven – I’d suggested people go onto google maps and use street view to re-acquaint themselves with how the area now looks.

    I think demolishing the building currently housing the Athletic Stores pretty much rolls up the flank of that whole streetscape since the group value of the red brick warehouses on that side of the Queen Street – College Street junction is much greater than having either building as a stand alone element of the urban fabric of the area. Once one building goes the other will quickly follow and the sense of massing and scale that they provide will be gone. While the street level facades are awful (but are easily changed), the contribution they make is in giving a sense of the propotions and character of the Victorian architecture of this part of the city centre.

    As to potential structural problems with individual buildings – a lot of the city centre is on sleech (intertidal clays) and a lot of the Victorian and earlier buildings mostly have timber-piled foundations, it wouldn’t be too hard to argue for the demolition of any of them.
    But the physical spaces of the city centre need to retain as much character and historial proportion as possible. Historical and valuable elements of the built heritage aren’t always painted onto the frontages of buildings and there is a diversity of elements that isn’t always appreciated like street layouts, groups of buildings and streetscapes. To take one example – the entries off Ann Street are a remnant of the medieval borough of Belfast (the medieval core being from Castle Lane to St Georges).

    Given that the city hall functions as a glorified bus stop and that unsympathetic planning pre-dates the troubles, anyone hoping to draw out the best of Belfast’s built heritage is fighting a tough battle at the best of times.

  • Ní Dhuibhir

    It’s sadly typical that we have just seen the erection (pun intended) of the giant rib-bones/flag poles which now commemorate Belfast’s industrial past by obstructing pedestrians along Royal Avenue, while the fabric of our actual history is ripped out in favour of uninhabited flats that could be in any city in the Western world.

  • Ceist

    Is the building listed?

    After all that red phone box on the junction of North St, Waring St and Bridge Street is listed so surely if the Athletic stores are that important in heritage terms the usual route would have been followed? (although I must confess asides from the corner doorway I’ve never seen anything particularly striking about it).

    As with many other things Belfast’s built heritage has been scarred by the recent preoccupation of some to blow bits of it to smithereens but as people move about in different ways now the barriers (mental, physical and security based) have come down the city need a new rationalised plan – the areas from king street up to royal ave is in serious need of regeneration and if residential units play part of that (as in almost every city) then fair enough

  • The Raven

    @Ceist – yeah, but residential to whom? My take on it is – and I stand to be corrected – that most of the so-called town centre apartments are out of reach of nearly everyone. I agree that it is good to introduce more people to town centre living, but again, at what cost?

    I blame Eric Cairns and others for their over-selling of “apartment living” over the past 15 years. I remember the phrase being delivered with no little amount of pomposity: I sell a lifestyle, not a property”. Well, if small rabbit-hutches, devoid of much light, one bedroom – two at best – cold and empty communal corridors is a lifestyle, then I’ll pass.

    I’ve been in ordinary “brownstone” apartments in New York, made from very similar buildings, with far more space. Residential units can be done, and done well, with more thought about space than profit. I’ve never been in them, but would the Hearth Homes project on College Green be a good reference point…?

  • latcheeco

    It’s worth considering that to many visitors, especially Americans, Australians etc., older buildings, especially those with architectural merit, are not as common as they are to Belfast people used to living in an old city. They are therefore a tourist attraction of some value in a place with hopes for tourism. People visit Ireland to see history, i.e. old things, and even though the benefits of individual preservation projects may not be immediately quantifiable to city hall budget calculators, the whole is often worth more than the individual parts, and it would be a grave mistake not to save as much as possible when so much has already been lost. Once it’s gone it’s gone forever

  • Ah yes, more empty apartments. Just what Belfast needs in a housing crash.

  • lamhdearg

    A visit to connswater shopping centre last night, where there is some sort of exhibition of old belfast photos reminded me off some of the old buildings we have lost.
    if the developers cant cope with the cost of at least keeping the fascia, then the project should be scrapped. Up the shinners (on this one).

  • Red Lion

    The amount of apartments built in Belfast suburban areas was way too high – ok they might have a place in the city centre – but the ones on the bottom of Shankill Road there is difficulty getting a pram into and yet families are living in them – family houses should have been built instead.

    In 20 years from now, once the ‘newness’ has faded alot of these apartment blocks will look like souless squares of brick and concrete – just take Queens Square for example, just a big rectangle – they wont date well.

    Shame if an old city centre building has to go but this will be offset if the architecture of the new build is classic enough and built of quality enough materials, and the units are of decent size not ‘developer profit’ size.

    We mustn’t be mezmerized by the words ‘development’ and ‘progress’!

  • RyanAdams

    “I seem to remember a couple of incidents in Belfast not too long ago were the developer would just knock down a protected building anyway because the fine was so low!!”

    That individual canvassed for a certain Balmoral Councillor …

  • Harry Flashman

    Well I’m all for preserving heritage but unless I’m missing something, and all I can see of the building is from websites, this building hasn’t much charm, we can be over-precious about preserving “historical” buildings some time.

    A case in point are the old shirt factories which are listed in the John Street, Carlisle Road area of Derry. OK they’re part of Derry’s heritage but the buildings are little more than eyesores now with few redeeming features.

    This all dates back to the fire which destroyed the long vacant Tillie & Henderson building, but frankly that end of the bridge now seems brighter and a lot less gloomy since its demise. As one old geezer who used to work there mused to me about the outrage about the destruction of the building;

    “Fancy getting all misty eyed about an awful oul’ seatshop”.

    Preserve that which is worth preserving, replace that which is not with something better.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Harry Harry Harry, T&H was magnificent, and worthy of restoration, it could have been Derrys Merchants Hotel!

    Didn’t see anything replace it, just a derilict site at the key site in town.

  • requiem777

    I think there’s a keeness to save any building of a certain age, we’ve seen enough cultural vandalism in Belfast that even some of our more unsightly buildings seem worhty of saving. The destruction of North Street Arcade and the subsquent failure of the investigation to go anywhere opened a number of eyes of people I know.

  • Harry Flashman

    Sure, it’s a derelict site which should be cleared up but no need to build anything in its place, enjoy the view of the river and the slopes of the Foyle valley.

    Not sure Derry really needs another hotel.

  • Dublin