The destruction of a well-known city church building could help boost the historically-declining congregation.
That is the hope of pastor Trevor Brock, who today presides over a congregation of around 125 at Great Victoria Street Baptist Church, the front portion of which is now being torn down.
The church – which has seen numbers steadily decline from more than 600 in the 1960s – currently holds its services in a hall at the rear of the church, which is going to remain throughout the demolition.
In the short term, the demolished part of the church will be a car park and possibly a small open space accessible to the public, while the hall at the back will be revamped.
Beyond that the plan is to build a large office block on the site, demolish the hall at the rear, and turn the bottom two floors of the new building over to the church.
“If this was just being demolished, and that was the end of the story, that would be very, very sad,” he said.
“But I think everyone is just eager to look forward to the future, to think what the possibilities are in terms of a more comfortable building for the functioning of the church in the days ahead”.
He added that recent years have seen an increase in new arrivals to the church, especially from overseas.
He said: “We see that trend increasing, and probably going further in the days that lie ahead. I think a new building here, a welcoming building, a contemporary building, will further that cause.”
The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society was unimpressed with the plans.
It said: “This demolition, replacement car park and potential 10-storey office block serve to contribute to the accumulative loss of the Victorian characteristics of this part of what was Belfast’s ‘Golden Mile’.
“Although not listed, this building makes a positive contribution to Belfast as a historic city and is a tourism asset, making Belfast special.”
Pastor Brock, who has been in post at the church for 26 years, said that the building has long been in a state of disrepair, and that refurbishing it was simply not an option that was open to them.
The church was built in the 1860s, and around 35 years after that a tiny caretaker’s house was added to the side; it can be seen sandwiched between the church and the BBC’s building.
In the 1960s, a brick hall was built behind the church, linked to the main building and roughly doubling the complex’s size.
Plans were submitted in 2008 to demolish everything and build a 10-floor office block with underground car parking; this was granted in 2010.
In 2011, a new application was submitted for the demolition of the current 1860s-built part of the church and replacement with a surface car park.
This was granted in 2012, and basically the same plan was then renewed earlier this year.
Pastor Brock said the current demolition will take about three weeks to complete, but beyond that, the timeframe is uncertain.