Looking at the York Street Interchange

David Capener is  a contributing editor for Archinet a global online architecture website/magazine.

On the face of it even the hardest critics of the DUP’s deal with the Conservative party would find it difficult to argue against an extra £1bn investment for Northern Ireland. Even if it is only a small ripple of 0.12% in the vast ocean that is the £770 billion budget that the government spent last year. Small change behind the back of the sofa? Maybe, but £1bn of small change nonetheless. £1bn that will — assuming the money goes to all the right places — benefit deprived communities, provide faster broadband, increase education investment, assist local business and fund NHS services; a list, by now, that we are probably all familiar with. This is good news for Northern Ireland. Right?

Over the past week’s commentators have been scouring every word, and sentence of the DUP/Tory list trying to discern what might really be lurking behind that small ripple of investment that took nearly three weeks to agree. Indeed, quite what it means that the DUP will support the Conservative government on “other matters on a case by case basis” remains to be seen. This may be less of a closed deal and more the beginning of an open ended one. A worry for Nationalists and centrist’s Tories alike — assuming of course that the minority Conservative government remains in power for the foreseeable future. Which even the bluest of the blue Conservatives would not dare assume.

Whether or not there are hidden political secrets lurking between the words and sentences of this agreement remain to be seen. What is most worrying about the DUP’s shopping list is that which is perhaps most obvious; hidden in plain sight behind the words “investment in infrastructure” is the York Street Interchange. It is on this controversial project that £150m of the £400m infrastructure budget will be spent. To put that figure in perspective, that’s 15% of the entire £1bn budget, fractional less than the 20%, proposed for NHS services.

The York Street Interchange is an infrastructure project that attempts to address the congestion problems and peak time delays for traffic travelling between the Westlink and the M2 and M3 motorways. The proposals, that in one form or another have been around for many years, and seek to solve the historical problem of what to do with the botched motorway system around the city, will provide a new bridge linking York Street with the city centre and will also include a number of other tunnels and flyovers.

The ‘drive through’ animations on the Department for Infrastructure project website effortlessly glide over a network of empty roads, painting a picture of how much better the new layout will be. Which, if like me, you have spent many a blood-pressure-peaking hour sat in a car full of screaming and fighting children, queuing to get onto the Westlink looks and sounds like very good news.

The slick fly though animation looks like very good news indeed. But gliding gently over the newly surfaced empty roads fails to show the actual urban conditions that the scheme will create for local residents; like those on Little George Street or Great George Street. For them the scheme will mean more noise; possibly create issues around levels of air quality; dark underpasses; more dead spaces; more empty, uninhabitable sites, dead ends, and a greater fragmenting of an already disconnected area of the city.

“Residents affected by the new wider road crashing through their neighbourhood and back gardens have fought hard to have their concerns listened to” said Belfast based architect Mark Hackett who has been working, pro bono, with local residents to help them understand what the often complex and unintelligible plans produced by the DFI actually mean for them and their communities. “It is very clear to me that such a road design would never be proposed through an affluent area in this manner, nor with this poverty of city vision and planning.”

Mark has been passionately arguing the case of local residents, spending hours of his time preparing images and drawings to show the actual effects that this scheme will have. “Now that funding is readily available, it is incumbent on the promoters of the interchange to do the best by the city and by the residents who will have to live beside this road and endure three years of disruption as the scheme is built.” But as is often the case in instances like this, the residents, for whom this scheme will have a real and negative effect, feel that their voices not being heard.

Mark believes that some relatively simple changes to the scheme could make a significant difference. Changes such as the design of the proposed bridge on York Street; “this can easily be improved to make the street better and more safe for walkers and cyclists”. Given that connectivity and access to the city are central to the proposals laid out in Belfast City Council’s 2015 Regeneration and Investment Strategy, it is hard to see how disconnecting lower York Street from a newly regenerated end of the centre can be justified.

Mark’s approach to the scheme has been innovative, as well as identifying the areas where road layouts can be adjusted to lessen the impact on residents he has also been identifying development sites that the scheme creates. “Better design in this area will actually save money” says Mark, “because the surplus public sites created by the scheme will have a greater development value.” Not only does Mark believe that his proposals will create better conditions for the local residents, but they will also generate income which in turn could be used to fund the scheme and release money to be used elsewhere.

So, as the DUP reach down the back of the Conservative governments budgetary sofa, the small change they find will, we hope, in some areas have a positive effect. But for Mark, and many of the residents he speaks for, “it is time that advocates of a better city speak up and support the process of getting a better resolution.” So, if she is to be true to her words, that this deal is about “building prosperity for all” and investing in “deprived communities” then Arlene Foster and the DUP must speak up and listen to those for whom their shopping list will have a real, tangible, and seemingly negative effect.

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  • OneNI

    The article appeared interesting until the mention of :
    “fails to show the actual urban conditions that the scheme will create for local residents; like those on Little George Street or Great George Street.”
    There are no residents on Little George Street and there is no such street at Great George Street. There is a Great Patrick Street – and it has no residents either

  • David Crookes

    The two most pestilential absurdities in the infrastructure of NI are first the York Street interchange, and secondly the bits-and-pieces-of-Toytown road to the international airport. If within three years the first of these absurdities is abolished, a numberless multitude of us will give a grateful sigh of relief. We may even begin to consider the possibility of a sane road to the airport, as indeed of a three-storey car park for the RVH.

    A moron is someone who accepts everything. Who can accept having to drive through Templepatrick at an assiduously well-policed 40 mph? ‘Country roads’ are fine and dandy for West Virginia.

  • Korhomme

    George’s rather than George.

  • Brian O’Neill

    You can clearly see houses on street view here:
    Little Georges St
    Belfast BT15 1FY
    https://goo.gl/maps/eWL76ofEPJT2

  • Steve

    A very Belfast-centric view of the world.

    The most absurd road in NI is the state of the one connecting Belfast and Derry, the two main cities in the jurisdiction. How many potential FDI executives have laughed off the prospect of investing in the city with consistently the highest jobless rate in the UK (and twice the NI average) by getting stuck behind tractors on the Glenshane Pass.

    Indeed – the entire road network connecting Derry/the North West is NI’s greatest absurdity. And Stormont agrees, which is why the A6 and A5 have been its main transport funding priorities for the last decade. Note that York Street Interchange isn’t one of them.

  • Skibo

    Is there not talk of a legal challenge already and neither the start date or the contractor has been appointed?
    I would have assumed there would be a certain amount of vesting required for this project. That could take anything from six months to two years to resolve. How on earth do the DUP and the Tories think they will be able to spend the money they have set aside for this in the next two years?

  • David Crookes

    “Stormont agrees…..”

    That phrase sounds a little dated.

  • Gopher

    The problem is simple only the M2 can cope with the increased volume of traffic to flow out of the the Exchange. The M1 and Sydenham by pass will become carparks without massive improvements.

  • aquifer

    Meanwhile Dublin is getting a real train to a real airport.

  • Brendan Heading

    While I think the scheme does need to go ahead, i agree with the author on the multiple levels of poverty of vision here.

    The one not mentioned so much in the article is the fact that this will simply push our peak time traffic problem a bit further down the road (figuratively and literally). Morning traffic which currently backs up at Nelson Street will flow right on through to the various Westlink offslips at Divis, Broadway and Stockman’s Lane where morning traffic is already backed up onto the carriageway. Similarly, coming from the other direction, traffic heading towards the M3 will back up at the Sydenham Road and Dee Street offslips and at Knocknagoney.

    Offpeak journeys for traffic movements between the Westlink and the M2/M3 will save maybe a minute or two.

  • Sean Danaher

    Its good at least that there is some more infrastructure spend in the North. When I first visited from Dublin (school Civic trip to Stormont in 1968) the roads were much better than in the South. Sadly for the North the position is now reversed. I was impressed by the Donegal roads – I spent a week driving around in a large motorhome at Easter; much less so with NI. Its not just a NI problem the roads in Northumberland are also a disgrace. The A1 which is the main link between London and Edinburgh is not even dual carriage for large sections, and yes I have been stuck behind tractors.
    For some year for every £1000 spent on infrastructure in London 50p has been spent in the North East of England. I think on average 80% of the UK infrastructure spending has gone to London over the past decade.

  • nilehenri

    trains to airports are a definite no go in the north. while all three (antrim, belfast and derry) are intersected by rail lines it is logistically impossible to re-open access.
    ignoring everywhere outside of the belfast region (which is where the infrastructure problem really begins) it is painfully obvious that york street is a mess, the westlink is ridiculous and the regional plan is weak and full of fantasy projections.
    it doesn’t help that our finest aren’t exactly sure of the differences between a road and a motorway, so what else can we expect?
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0f95524f9f0d61462763eda0ce49dfbf3a4b14446fe9a9781ae3c45cbb75503b.png

  • SilentMajority

    How many times will money be thrown at this ‘interchange’? It seems to gobble up a significant part of the NI budget every few years on harebrained schemes drawn up by experts and modelled precisely to show that the ‘new’ solution really will solve the problem.

    Have any of the ‘experts’ ever been sued for negligence and poor advice instead of the taxpayer having to pay for trying to correct their mistakes?

    Why was a major new university recently (and new phases ongoing and student housing etc) slapped right bang in the centre and beside the ‘problem’ interchange thereby intensifying it? This all defies logic.

    Meanwhile ‘The West’ just has to accept it is not its time yet and sit and watch as the focus continues on Belfast..

    This state has a Programme for Government, Regional Development Strategy and Investment policy that supposedly promotes and supports regional balance and correcting imbalance and inequality in the dishing out of the subsidy from the UK taxpayer. In reality this has in fact produced the opposite and continues regional imbalance,inequity and the spending of the block grant subsidy primarily in Belfast and its surrounding area, This is NOT paid for by the Belfast tax payer but by the general UK taxpayer as a subsidy.

    The solution to the ‘interchange’ problem is to forget about doing any more work to it and spread some of the affluence and jobs subsidised by the UK taxpayer to the rest of NI thereby reducing the pressure in the interchange and need for any more expenditure and work to it.

    After all this is just following policy, but then again that does not appear to matter in Northern Ireland!

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I think there is also the issue of what’s called ‘induced traffic’. The benefits of opening new roads to reduce congestion are quickly eroded by increased traffic.

  • aquifer

    Logistically impossible. is that relating to “the detailed organization and implementation of a complex operation” that we would be too dim to achieve, or something to do with passenger volumes?

  • Brian O’Neill

    Indeed. Build it they will come.

  • Gary Da;ze;;

    You can go back to 1972 and see the plans for connecting the M1 and M2. The original connector was an elevated motorway, this was abandoned in the 70’s mainly because of the Troubles. A very cheap but not so cheerful alternative was the Westlink which should have been 3 lanes each direction all the way but was reduced to the cut price version we have today. The 2-lane sections from York St to Divis St could have been made 3 lanes at considerably less than 50% additional cost. The substantial retaining walls would have cost the same, just some additional cost for the overbridges and pumping. The land and embankments for the interchange have been awaiting the Scheme for at least 30 years, so if not ready now they’ll never be!!!

  • Skibo

    Gary being from mid Ulster, our main bottleneck was and still is Toome. I remember someone reprinting a newspaper cutting from the 60s where a person was refused planning for a house because of the planned Toome bypass. It finally opened in 2004. It still had challenges. I believe this challenge is something to do with the awarding of the contract and could take 9 months. That could be longer than the current government lasts!

  • Gary Da;ze;;

    Most of the traffic from mid-ulster is destined to arrive at Belfast York St Interchange; its improvement would therefore benefit many travellers’ journey times.
    Many of the challenges to road developments seem to be vexatious having little benefit to anyone other than the legal profession. Getting a roads project through the process is like wading through treacle.

  • Skibo

    Gary, people travel in other directions also. The Mid-Ulster area had been neglected for a long long time. We now have half a ring road for Magherafelt and the dualing of the road from the M22 to the Castledawson roundabout under construction.
    The rest of the road to Derry requires dualing or at least three lanes the whole way. Dungiven and Moneymore both need bypasses or ring roads.
    As the A5 has now been promised further money from the Dublin Government, hopefully we can get it underway also.
    The world does not revolve round Belfast.