Soapbox – the loss of priceless built heritage can’t be justified – Save CQ

Rebekah McCabe is the chair of Save CQ. She is a PhD researcher in urban anthropology, a producer at PLACE, and the founder of urban advocacy platform Township.

Aerial photograph highlighting extent of proposed demolition of entire Royal Exchange redevelopment in red

You’ve probably heard rumblings of discontent around redevelopment of the Cathedral Quarter for the last few months. The campaign group Save CQ was started last February in response to the pre-planning consultation for the outline plan, that is the proposal for the entire 12-acre site that was formerly know as Royal Exchange.

Save CQ’s analysis of the proposal resulted in a massive public outcry, with 2,262 letters of opposition sent in a single week. We drew attention to the weaknesses of the proposal, particularly around loss of built heritage, lack of housing provision, displacement of independent traders, breaches in planning policy, and an overall poor quality of architecture and urban design, especially wrong for a part of the city bursting with character.

Just over two weeks ago, the developers announced that they would be proceeding to seek full planning permission for a section of the scheme: Phase 1b.

Phase 1b encompasses land bounded by Lower Garfield Street, North Street, Rosemary Street, and Royal Avenue. Of all the proposed phases, it is probably the least problematic, at first glance anyway. After all, every listed building within the site is being retained, there will be a new ‘public’ square around Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church, an extension of Lombard Street, and most of the new buildings are on a site that’s already empty.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

One of the challenges when a major development gets planning permission in phases is the relationship of each individual part to the overall scheme can get lost in the detail. It is crucial to keep the whole in mind when evaluating this initial phase. It is key to think about this phase in terms of its wider implications, particularly the threat of demolition facing the unlisted but no less historic buildings on North Street, including the Arcade.

Put simply, we should care very much what gets built on the surface car park on North Street. Or, to be more accurate, we should be paying close attention to what is not getting built on it.

Even the casual observer will be familiar with the argument that Belfast needs to attract a big retailer into the city centre, something like John Lewis, for example. In fact, this regeneration scheme is predicated on attracting just such a tenant.

That, of course, means that there will need to be a department store somewhere on the 12-acre site to make the development commercially viable. Given the historic fabric of the area, it would make sense that any large new building be placed on the already-empty car park. Otherwise, you would be proposing the demolition of built heritage arbitrarily, and that would be short-sighted and wasteful. The department store, however, is not being proposed for the car park. An office building is. The car park is big enough to accommodate a department store, and provides an incredibly simple alternative to the loss of irreplaceable built heritage.

In opposing this phase, we are asking that all options remain on the table. If it proceeds, we will either lose the Arcade or the developer will lose the commercial basis for the scheme. The alternative could be a win-win solution. We are not opposing redevelopment, we simply think arbitrary needs of a hypothetical retailer do not justify the loss of priceless built heritage.

If you agree, and would like to see this development proceed with appropriate critical oversight, we’d love you to use this form to register your objection before the deadline of 5pm on Tuesday 18th July.

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  • Large shopping centres have two predictable effects, as we are seeing in Oxford with the Westgate centre redevelopment.

    1. They generate traffic, leading to more congestion and demand for more car parks – yet this proposal is removing a car park. That is fine if you have good public transport (like the Luas tram) or park and ride places on the outskirts, with buses coming in to town.

    2. Shops selling similar goods outside the new shopping centre close down and get either abandoned or replaced by pubs and fast food joints.

    Also, where is the affordable housing for the low waged staff in the shopping centre? Shouldn’t the developers be required to allocate space for NI Housing Executive houses?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Good Luck with your endeavours but do not build your hopes up too much regarding public protest as the Developers have probably already done a secret deal with BCC Planning Department for permission. I am from the southern side of the city hall and seen how they just ride roughshod over communities and any architectural heritage in their paths !

  • SDLP supporter

    Thank for alerting us to this. Rebekah. Is there some kind of template letter available whereby we submit our views in favour of conservation?

    I was at the Reclaiming the Enlightenment (RTE) event in the beautiful Rosemary Street First Presbyterian church on Bastille Day, a real architectural gem. One of RTE’s aims is to preserve, protect and defend the Assembly Rooms at the Four Corners where the Belfast Harp Festival took place and where Henry Joy McCracken was tried and condemned to death.

  • the keep

    Would be interested in seeing the BCC perspective on this rather than individual parties position

  • lizmcneill

    Is the Assembly Rooms building under threat by this development?

  • SDLP supporter

    Don’t know, Liz. I think it’s listed as a Grade 1 building. Former banks, as it was in one of its later incarnations, are notoriously difficult to convert and I suspect the building is too small to be viable as a boutique hotel.

    It’s amazing to think tha Henry Joy was born (High Street), lived (Rosemary Street, formerly Rosemary Lane) was tried and condemned (Assembly Rooms) and hanged (corner of Corn Market and High Street), a quadrilateral whose longest side is only a few dozen metres.

  • Am Ghobsmacht
  • Am Ghobsmacht

    It would that.

    Of particular interest would be the conflict of visions offered by the council itself and the realities offered by planning department.

    In a response to one of my rants a planning dept representative told me that there is little or no consultation between the planning dept and the various ‘visions’.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I’d weatherspoons should be alerted to this, converting banks is their speciality.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I don’t see why this is still even being debated.

    Surely the planning dept keep tabs on planning decisions and regeneration projects in other cities?

    If building car parks, offices and shopping centres bring wealth and regeneration then why didn’t Glasgow and Liverpool just sweep away those areas that they have since successfully regenerated?

    “Where should we go for holidays this year Norma? I heard that they did a good job of Glasgow’s Merchant City area, you know, keeping the old facades, refurbishing some of the old buildings and sprucing the area up and filling it full of boutique stores, pubs and public events”

    “Well Norman, I heard they built a shopping centre and a car park pretty close to another shopping centre and lots of other car parks…. what do you say to that?”

    “Well that’s decided then: a trip to Belfast it is then! I’m sure they must have a train link from the city airport to the city centre too…”

  • Steve

    A small(ish) former bank in Derry has just opened as a new boutique hotel, with less than 20 bedrooms I believe : http://www.shipquayhotel.com

  • ElamLayor

    This process coincides with Northern Ireland’s 12th Bank Holiday, and there was very little notice for response

    best time to announce bad news?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I think a problem for such enterprises in Belfast is that city centre property is priced at ‘building site’s prices rather than what they actually are, so only developers can afford them.

    If the council were strict about demolition then this would not have to be the case and smaller businesses could fill in the gaps. Alas…

  • SDLP supporter

    Thanks, Steve and AG.

  • Peter Moore

    Hi Liz….as far as I am aware they are not, there are a number of historic listed buildings there:

    HB26/50/060 (Northern Whig) – Grade B1 Listing
    HB26/50/259 (War Museum) – Grade B2 Listing
    HB26/50/246 (Assembly Buildings) Grade B1 Listing
    HB26/50/061 (Former Northern Bank) – Grade B1 Listing

    That little quadrant of Waring Street, Lower Donegall Street is unaffected by any plans as I understand it.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The “Belfast Harpers Assembly” is what the Harpers themselves called the event at the time. The term “Harp Festival” actually comes from the Irish Harp Festival at the Linen Hall Library, on 8-16 May, 1903, which was organised by F.J. Bigger and others. The name migrated to the the Harper’s Assembly itself in work written after that date and the older usage has become forgotten, by all save few academics. You’ll get an overview in the introduction to the new edition of Charlotte Milligan Fox’s “Annals of the Irish Harpers” published a few years ago by Ardrigh Books:

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Annals-Irish-Harpers-Charlotte-Milligan-Fox/dp/1909721018/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1500444588&sr=8-1&keywords=sara+lanier

  • Steve

    That is how all property is priced everywhere, though. ‘Highest and best use’ – factoring in actual (i.e. with planning permission), perceived and possible potential, beyond just current use. It’s why a field with planning permission isn’t just sold as a field.

  • Rebekah McCabe

    Thanks! I haven’t thought to check the comments here until now. Appreciate the support!

  • Rebekah McCabe

    The proposals are for it to be converted into a boutique hotel, with the demolition of the later addition on the North Street side. The proposed tower (22 storeys +) proposed for Rosemary Street/ Bridge Street junction would overshadow it though, and create unpleasant street conditions all around. Generally poorly thought out.

  • Rebekah McCabe

    We’ve brought concerns directly to city council and they’re listening. I feel confident of that. They won’t be making any public comments about it as it’s not a live application yet. Not that that should deter people from making their feelings known to their councillors!

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    On a grassroots level have you touched base with the Sunflower pub?

    They’re very concerned about this type of thing and know like minded folk.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    The only decent shopping centre imo is Victoria square because it acts as a channel or connector for the streets as opposed to castlecourt which is a monstrosity and obstruction.