University's Boost To The Cathedral Quarter

11 March 2009

Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter received a welcome boost last month when the University of Ulster unveiled plans to invest £250 million in its Greater Belfast campus that will lead to the construction of a new landmark building within the vicinity of St Anne’s Cathedral. This former merchant quarter and historic nucleus of Belfast is enjoying a commercial and cultural renaissance, emerging as a rising star after years of neglect, and frequently, piecemeal development.

To date, the Cathedral Quarter has attracted substantial investment from operators involved in the hospitality and leisure industries who spotting its untapped potential have undertaken extensive development and re-development projects aimed at injecting a new sense of vitality, energy and creativity into the area. Already home to long-established and highly successful pubs and restaurants such as Nick’s Warehouse, The John Hewitt and Duke of York to list a few, new venues including The Potthouse and The Spaniard are helping to revitalise the quarter in addition to making a significant economic contribution.

The process of regeneration continues to gather momentum. Within the space of two years, The Merchant Hotel, Belfast’s first five-star hotel, has opened its doors to the public while around the corner at the junction of Waring St and Donegall St, Premier Travel Inn, Britain’s biggest budget hotel chain, launched a 171-bed hotel in spring 2008. Also in the pipeline is a Ramada Encore hotel – the Ramada Group’s latest brand offering stylish, innovative, high-value yet mid-priced hotel accommodation and facilities – which will anchor one corner of the £110 million St Anne’s Square development currently under construction.

St Anne’s Square promises to be one of the city centre’s most exciting leisure, commercial and residential developments in terms of concept, design and function. In addition to extensive retail, office and residential space, the scheme will house The MAC, (the former Old Museum Art Centre’s proposed new venue. Designed by RIBA-award winners, the Belfast-based architects, Hackett & Hall, this flagship contemporary visual and performance arts centre, which is due to open in 2011, should cement the Cathedral Quarter’s reputation for cultural and artistic excellence whilst helping to stimulate further artistic and cultural development.

One notable feature of recently-built schemes and those yet to come out of the ground is the re-introduction of residential space, which in my view, will go a long way towards transforming the Cathedral Quarter into the vibrant and cosmopolitan heart of Belfast that it once was. Creating a district in which people not only work and play but actually live is fundamental in terms of regeneration and on-going development. This is already happening with the completion of mixed-use schemes such as that completed recently by Barnabas Ventures on Talbot Street overlooking St Anne’s Cathedral. Construction work involved the restoration of a former textiles warehouse and the construction of three new buildings, which comprises office and retail space, over 30 apartments and a new visitor attraction relating to the Northern Ireland War Memorial. The company has expanded its interests in the Cathedral Quarter and is about to start work on a new scheme, Academy Street Exchange immediately opposite the Belfast and Education Library Board’s headquarters, which will include retail and office space.

Pic: Artist's Impression of Academy Street Exchange

The University of Ulster’s decision to re-balance its student numbers with the majority re-locating to new premises within the Cathedral Quarter must surely validate the level of investment that developers have made and continue to make within the area. To quote University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Richard Barnett, "Our recent upgrade to the Belfast campus has shown us that there is an enormous appetite for the University of Ulster’s programmes in central Belfast." Expanding upon this statement, he added, "A vibrant city centre is important for those kinds of programmes and the students they attract, and our strategic vision is to provide the space and facilities needed for these activities to flourish."
These are encouraging words indeed. In addition, although we cannot ignore the fact that we are faced with some of the most challenging set of economic circumstances in decades, the University’s presence within the Cathedral Quarter will, hopefully, draw in other institutions and businesses. In turn, this could well boost commercial values stimulating further growth within its retail and leisure sectors in the process.

Whatever happens, the Cathedral Quarter is on an upwards trajectory and while those involved in the regeneration process are dedicated to preserving its unique personality , their focus is firmly on creating a strategic and sustainable future aimed at establishing a central hub that is also wholly in tune with a 21st century ethos and lifestyle.

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