Part of Belfast city centre that has been closed off since the Primark fire last August is due to reopen to traffic this week, despite calls from thousands of people for the area to remain a pedestrian only zone.
According to the Department for Infrastructure (DfI), restrictions put in place to ensure public safety following the blaze which gutted the historic Bank Buildings are “no longer required” and it is planned to reopen Castle Place, Donegall Place and Royal Avenue on Thursday – but only on a restricted basis.
“When the junction opens, it will facilitate movement for permitted vehicles from Royal Avenue towards Donegall Place and Castle Place (one direction only),” a DfI spokesman explained.
“Permitted vehicles will also be able to go from Castle Place into Donegall Place.
“The junction is not open to all through traffic, with vehicles in the city centre restricted to buses, blue badge holders, permit holders and delivery vehicles.”
Temporary parks put in place by Belfast City Council in the wake of the Primark fire have been removed in recent days in preparation for the reopening of the streets to traffic.
While many people will welcome the return of vehicular access to the heart of the city centre, thousands have signed an online petition calling for the area to be made permanently traffic-free.
The petition on the change.org website, entitled ‘Belfast loves its new pedestrian core and play streets - DON’T hand it all back to traffic’, states: “Belfast has had a working example of the kind of liveable, traffic-free city core that many other cities around the world are actively creating – and we’re about to return to clogging the city up with vehicles, ploughing hundreds of buses through shopping and leisure streets that are now thriving without them. Halt this rush to hand back our streets to vehicles.”
The petition, organised by Northern Ireland Greenways, has been signed by more than 3,000 people in just a few days.
Recognising that there is a considerable groundswell of opposition to the reopening of the streets to traffic, a DfI spokesperson said that while the plan is to restore vehicular access now, the move has “started a wider debate about how we use our city centre and make it an attractive, safe and accessible environment as possible for everyone” – something that will be the subject of future discussions with other agencies and stakeholders.
The department said the cordon had “provided opportunities to trial a number of projects” which have demonstrated the benefits of greater levels of pedestrianisation. But it added that the road closures had “created difficulties for some groups using public transport to access the city centre and created congestion in other parts of the city.”
Welcoming the start of the phased reopening of city centre bus routes, a spokesperson for Translink said: “We plan to re-introduce citybound Metro services as the cordon around Bank Buildings is reduced.
“Outbound services will continue to operate via North Street, until Royal Avenue has completely reopened.
“We welcome this phased opening which will allow north Belfast bus services back into the heart of the city.”