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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