Can we save Belfast City Centre?

Before the pandemic, I visited a client’s office in Belfast City Centre. They were on the 7th floor of a building near City Hall. While waiting in reception, I could look over Belfast and marvel at all the construction work. At that time, Belfast was buzzing with many new companies investing in the City Centre. 

I did not go near the City Centre during the pandemic as I had no reason to. I had seen reports on social media that the City Centre had rapidly gone downhill, but it was only recently I saw it for myself.

I brought my son to an activity in the old Bank/Tesco on Royal Ave. The building has been taken over by the council, and they are using it for public events. 

Walking through the City Centre was a bizarre experience. It was a Saturday afternoon, but there were noticeably fewer people around than before the pandemic. 

To quote a Belfast saying, the City Centre is a dirty hole. Bins overflow, footpaths have this weird sticky grime on them – the whole place needs a good clean. 

There was an always issue with vacant buildings, but the pandemic has accelerated this trend with quite a few empty shops — some in prime sites like the closed Easons and Burger King in Donegall Place. 

The general vibe was one of decline. A lot of the shops were tired and dirty. Castle Court, in particular, has lost what little lustre it had. I still can’t believe they pulled down the Old Belfast Central Hotel to make way for it.

Someone decided Castle Court would be better than this

Junior wanted a lego sticker book; we tried several shops with no luck. So finally, I ended up pulling out my phone and ordering one on Amazon, which arrived at my house the next day. 

This pretty much sums up the problem modern retail has. It is much easier and usually cheaper to buy things in your local humungous supermarket or online. For groceries and general items, I go to Lidl, Asda or Sainsbury’s. The more random stuff I get from Amazon. 

With a good chunk of office workers still working from home, the City Centre has been colonised by a weird mix of Bible bashers, anti-vaxers, anti anti vaxers, alcoholics and drug addicts. 

If you are a fan of Lou Reed and 1970s inner city nihilism, then all this has a curious attraction. It is utterly mesmerising observing the antics of the various characters around the City Centre.

A black lady on High Street appeared to be preaching in tongues. She would babble into a tiny PA system as mystified shoppers scurried past. Outside the old Easons store on Donegall Place, a young preacher was barely taking the time to breathe as he set forth his task of filling us with the good news of the Lord. He was quite a class act; he would make a great auctioneer. 

Poor old Donegall Place is now ground zero for addicts. Mcdonald’s has had to get security; Burger King just shut down completely. Social media abound with photos of drug paraphernalia found in the City Centre. 

How we address addicts deserves its own post, but for now, let’s just say they don’t do much for the image of the City Centre. All it will take is one story of a kid getting pricked by a discarded needle to put every parent off setting foot in the City Centre again. 

On the Glider on the way home, my son gave me a look that said: what was the point of that day out? And I had to agree. I have an emotional attachment to Belfast City Centre that my son does not have, and the way things are going, he is likely never to have. 

I have happy childhood memories of gazing at the toys in Leisureworld. Hoking through old comics in Harry Halls in Smithfield. Pottering about the shops was a pleasurable way to spend an afternoon. 

I have very little reason to ever go near the City Centre, and I suspect some of you are the same. We are lucky in Belfast to have loads of great pubs and restaurants all over the city – The Lisburn Road, Ormeau Road, Ballyhackamore etc. Likewise, we have shopping Centres aplenty, all with free parking.

There are some bright spots. Victoria Square seems to be doing well. The Cathedral Quarter still seems popular but North Street, Donegall Street and the shameful abandonment of the old Northern Bank on Waring Street really let that area down. 

For the City Centre to survive and thrive, you need to make it a place people want to spend time in: it needs to be a destination. I personally think Belfast City Centre can be saved, but it will require leadership and creativity, which, let’s face it, have not been in plentiful supply recently.

A more likely scenario is continual decline. I don’t think you will ever get office workers back to pre-pandemic levels. Also, these issues are not unique to Belfast; City Centres everywhere are trying to find a new role in the 21st Century. 

A saviour could be the opening of the new UU Campus. It may be insanely over budget, but it could deliver a much-needed boost of youthful energy into the City Centre. 

To conclude, my biggest worry is that we just don’t care. Neglect thrives on indifference.

The council’s first priority should be giving the City Centre a good clean and, more importantly, keeping it clean. 

We need to find a way to get our old buildings back into use. Most importantly, we need to find a way to deal with the empty shop units that blight every high street. Sort out dereliction, and you can breathe new life back not just into Belfast but all our City and Town Centres. 

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