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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