Belfast city centre buildings to be demolished for £400m development on former Royal Exchange site

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By Andrew Madden

THREE buildings in the heart of Belfast will be demolished to make way for a £400m regeneration project, following a unanimous decision by the council’s planning committee.

Belfast’s City Council’s planning committee approved the plans, without discussion, at tonight’s meeting at City Hall.

Now the structures on 53-63 Royal Avenue and 16 Lower Garfield Street will disappear and be replaced with the urban development, previously known as the Royal Exchange project.

Some of the key issues in the case presented by council officers at the meeting included the impact on adjacent listed buildings and sections of the plans within the city centre Conservation Area.

City planners recommended approval of the plans prior to Tuesday’s committee session, which follows the approval of 11 out of the 12 of the projects associated applications in March.

Developers Castlebrooke Investments said almost 6,000 permanent jobs are set to be created by the new office, retail and leisure space.

Carried out in phases, the construction of the development will include: two hotels, the reintegration and refurbishment of seven listed buildings, three new public realm spaces and a 22-storey tower block.

To date, the company has invested more than £40m in acquiring the site, in addition to planning and construction, which began with a listed building on Lower Garfield site last year (under existing planning permission).

The site switched hands in January 2016 in an off-the-market deal between Castlebrooke and Cerberus, the US firm who purchased Nama assets totalling almost £1.5bn in 2014.

It covers 12 acres of land in the North East Quarter of the city centre bound by Royal Avenue, Donegall Street, North Street, Lower Garfield Street and High Street.

Construction for the proposed scheme is estimated to be in the region of £250m, with the total investment reported to be close to £400m.

Concerns over the project were previously raised by several councillors and campaign groups, such as Save Cathedral Quarter, primarily regarding the potential negative impact on heritage, arts and smaller businesses.

Meanwhile, several other items were given the go ahead on Tuesday, including: an extension to the Asda store in the Westwood Centre; an outline case for a residential development on the site of the old Mount Gilbert College; and a new reception and exhibition space in City Hall.

On the night, the new reception for City Hall drew some concern from councillors, as a new reception area was only opened recently.

Sinn Fein councillor JJ Magee questioned paying for “the same job twice”, however the recommended approval by planners was agreed, without a vote.

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