RSUA Calls on Cathedral Quarter Developers (Royal Exchange) to Improve and Enrich Plans

05 April 2017

Overview

The Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA) welcomes investment in Belfast and particularly in our city centre. There is no doubt that the part of the Cathedral Quarter which is proposed for development is in need of investment to stimulate regeneration.

RSUA also welcomes the level of interest there is in the architecture of our city, both existing and future. Rightly so, it shapes how we live and therefore it is important that we get it right, learn from past mistakes and always look to improve and enhance our environment. Due to its location and scale, this is a development of particular importance to the future of the city.

If ever there was an area suited to heritage led regeneration, this is it. It is the old town. It is a conservation area. It is called the Cathedral Quarter but equally it could be called the Historic Quarter or the Cultural Quarter. Perhaps it could even be called the Independent Quarter – the part of Belfast not heavily imprinted with the global/national chain stores and outlets.

This area is a unique part of Belfast’s roots and identity. It has a wonderful story to tell.

In saying that, not everything old is worth keeping and not everything new is ‘bad’. As a city we must be open to progress and renewal. A lot of ‘ordinary buildings’ have a lifespan of usefulness. The challenge with this development is getting the balance right between the old and the new. The aim is to find the optimum solution taking account of all of the economic, social, environmental and cultural factors.

RSUA believes that the current proposal marks clear progress on previous plans for this area. However we do not think it is the finished article. We believe it can be improved. We seek creative investment in a creative area.

It is easy to criticise but we recognise how difficult it is to get this right. There are many competing interests.

Particular points of note

We welcome the removal of surface level/multi storey carparking however we do have concerns about the impact on pedestrians due to access to the car park

We have concerns about building height and particularly the impact of shadow. The bid for 26 storeys for the largest building is likely to be just that, an opening bid. This could potentially open the ‘flood gates’ in the absence of a Tall Buildings Policy for the city and in an area of modest scale approach for a modern city.

We have concern about the extent and scale of commercial office space. Currently big office and big retail appears to dominate. We would be concerned that there is not enough housing or small units. It is so important to get the mix right. No-one wants this to be a deadzone outside office hours. Vibrancy of the area should be enhanced. Diversity is key - arts, creative, charity, start ups, small independents, makers, fixers – all need space.

We have concern that at a time when Belfast needs to increase public space this proposal appears to be eating into public space and not replacing it (or replacing it with private open space).

We would welcome consideration of increased retention of existing buildings. We don’t believe that refurbished old buildings will be any less expensive to rent that new ones if sensitively treated – in fact they could add value.

As is the case in much of the city centre, many of the existing buildings in the proposed development area are vacant above ground. Investing in these buildings to increase occupancy at all levels will inevitably result in the commercial gain required to enable progress.

RSUA calls on the developers and the planners to pause and create the space for more meaningful engagement with key stakeholders, particularly the arts and cultural organisations and small independent businesses which are the heart of the Cathedral Quarter. In the long run it will produce a better and more coherent outcome and hopefully will ensure that the unique characteristics of Cathedral Quarter are not forgotten or lost.

RSUA has sought a meeting with the developer to ensure that we are fully informed about this application before commenting further.

This is an opportunity to deliver a truly mixed used scheme which could have a very positive impact on Belfast if dealt with in a sensitive and appropriate manner.