VIDEO: Huge revamp of Belfast would create miles-long leafy avenue... turn Westlink into tunnel... and make city ‘blue again’
A business lobby group has put together a major set of blueprints for revamping Northern Ireland’s capital city.
The submission from the Belfast Chamber of Commerce – which has former DUP economy minister Simon Hamilton at its helm – is basically a kind of wish-list, re-imagining the city as they would like to see it.
The document points to regeneration projects from such far-flung places as Chicago and South Korea, suggesting Northern Ireland can emulate these examples.
The chamber document is its response to Belfast City Council’s consultation into its roadmap for the future of the city centre.
This consultation began on September 30, and closes in three days (more below).
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Here is the chamber’s thinking about what is wrong with the city at present, and how to remedy it.
Its document begins: “Belfast has come on leaps and bounds in recent times. It is, in many respects, unrecognisable.
“However, the pandemic has exposed the frailties that have afflicted Belfast for years if not decades. Issues like:
“Central Belfast’s residential population remains low with no prospect of matching, in the short term, the growth in city centre living seen in cities like Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester;
“Our city centre does not have sufficient open and green space for people to enjoy time together;
“Walking and cycling around Belfast city centre is not always as easy or effortless as it ought to be; and
“The city centre sits almost as an island, separated from surrounding communities by roads and the river.”
Here, in short, are the chamber’s ideal solutions.
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Firstly, it envisages a kind of unbroken tree-lined avenue from north to south.
“Belfast Chamber wants to knit together two great institutions in our city – Queen’s University and Ulster University – in a way that creates a wonderful new destination of international renown,” it says.
“A green, linear park extending almost two miles running from the new Ulster University campus at Cathedral Gardens along Royal Avenue and Donegall Place, around City Hall and down Bedford Street, Dublin Road and Botanic Avenue to Botanic Gardens and Queen’s University.”
This, it adds, can all be achieved with “small adjustments to the existing roadway”, making it “a bold but achievable ambition”.
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Another big plank in the chamber’s plans is to make Belfast “blue again” – by which it means re-focussing the city centre around the River Lagan.
It notes that Belfast used to be much more of a maritime city, with the Connswater in the east being important for industry, as well as the Blackstaff and Farset being landmarks in the north-west .
The city derives its name from the last of these, but throughout the modern era both these last two waterways have been redirected through underground culverts, making them invisible.
The chamber recommends reconnecting the city with its rivery roots by “building a Belfast Riverwalk along both banks of the Lagan”.
This would link the Titanic Quarter with Ormeau Park, Botanic Gardens, Belvoir Forest and the Lagan Meadows.
“Initiating a ‘Bridge Building’ programme [with] a number of new architecturally stunning pedestrian and cycling bridges across the Lagan and around Belfast’s waterfront,” the chamber says.
“Installing an ‘urban spa’ in Belfast Harbour similar to the Allas Seapool in Helsinki.
“Developing ‘Belfast Beaches’ along the Lagan modelled on the successful ‘Paris Plages’ and Oslo’s new beach beside its Munch Museum.”
It also gives the example of the newly-pedestrianised stretch of downtown Chicago which lets shoppers and workers stroll along the Chicago River, hemmed in by skyscrapers.
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Under the heading “stitching the city together”, the chamber calls for measures to cut car traffic.
It suggests “the reallocation of existing roadway to permit the prioritisation of public transport, the inclusion of segregated cycling infrastructure, the widening of footways for pedestrians and the insertion of more amenity space”.
It imagines the “construction of platforms over the top of sections of the Westlink – using Cheonggyecheon in Seoul as our inspiration – would create acres of new space for children’s play areas, parkland, greenways and other activities, replacing a canyon which cuts the city centre off from its natural hinterland”.
The Cheonggyecheon project involved ripping up a 10-lane highway in the middle of Seoul city and replacing it with a pedestrian gully.
In Belfast’s own case, this would mean keeping the existing motorway “gully” but turning it into a tunnel, with the roof of it becoming a pedestrian area.
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A central theme throughout the chamber’s submission is the relatively unpopulated nature of Belfast city centre.
There are some traditional terraced neighbourhoods close to the centre – Sandy Row, The Markets, Carrick Hill, lower Falls – and some high-rise apartment blocks.
But, says the chamber, “Belfast has one of the least populated city centres in Europe, if not the world, and increasing Belfast’s city centre population has been described as the missing piece in the Belfast’s regeneration jigsaw”.
It says: “We look enviously at competitor cities like Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester who saw the number of people living in the heart of their cities increase by 181%, 163%, 150% and 149% respectively between 2002 and 2015.
“In 2020, Deloitte’s Regional Crane Survey recorded zero new residential starts in Belfast city centre.
“With around 5,000 people living in central Belfast, our city centre has approximately seven times fewer inhabitants than Manchester.
“We have a long way to go to hit the Belfast Agenda target of making ‘our city home to an additional 66,000 people’ by 2035.
“The benefits of a massively increased city centre population are multiple.
“As well as being crucial to transforming Belfast into a vibrant 24/7 city and ending the sense that the city goes to sleep at 6pm, increasing the number of residents in central Belfast is equally crucial in tackling climate change as it eliminates or at least considerably minimises the need to commute.”
In terms of what to do about all of this, the chamber says “immediate, decisive action is needed” in the form of drawing up a “proper plan”.
This should include the following:
>> Rates exemptions for new build residential developments in Belfast city centre similar to those in operation in GB cities;
>> The fast-tracking of city centre based residential schemes;
>> A reduction in car parking requirements in city centre residential developments to encourage active travel;
>> The development of a housing development fund akin to Greater Manchester’s Housing Investment Fund to help stimulate the city’s residential market.
The chamber concludes: “A bold vision for Belfast is nothing without the ability to delivery it. Belfast Chamber does not doubt that our city partners share our ambition for Belfast.
“What we are worried about is our city’s capacity to deliver such a big, bold plan and to do so in a timely manner.”
The consultation was meant to have finished in December, but is still open because there were some technical problems.
It closes at 5pm this Friday.
See this link: www.yoursay.belfastcity.gov.uk/bolder-vision
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