Royal Avenue was a hive of activity today as the main shopping thoroughfare got ‘back on the grid’ thanks to a newly opened walkway in front of Primark.
Since August neither traffic nor pedestrians could pass in front of the fire-ravaged Bank Buildings, meaning inconvenient detours for shoppers and closure for some businesses.
Today many of the shops that had been behind a safety cordon were able to re-open fronted by a tunnel-like walkway constructed from scaffolding and shipping containers filled with ballast.
The structure is painted white on the inside and is fitted with strip lights which will be needed when it begins to get dark.
Around the site some market stalls and fairground attractions have been set up in a bid to bring even more footfall to the recently neglected part of Belfast.
Consumers in the city gave their verdict on the re-opening of the route.
Selena Woodward from east Belfast said: “It looks like a great job in the circumstances. It’s just a pity they weren’t able to do it sooner.”
Sean McKeever from Dundalk said: “We’d been up in Belfast about six or seven times a year. What happened at Primark has brought difficult times on a lot of businesses.
“I’m sure they’ll be glad to be back on the grid.”
Patricia Magee from Belfast said: “The tunnel is nice and bright. I would have come this way every day. I’ve had to walk the long way round so I’m really happy this walkway has opened.”
Peter Etherson from Maghera said: “I’d be in Belfast fairly often. Any time I was in the city I’d have come down here to go to the bank or the library.
“When it was closed off I didn’t bother coming down this way. Thankfully I’m able to walk this way again.”
Kenny Graham from Coleraine commented: “I’d been down in Belfast about once a fortnight.
“It’s a big improvement.
“I’m sure these traders around here are glad to get back to work.”
IN PICTURES: New walkway opens around fire damaged Primark
Not only has the walkway allowed many of the shops that had been forced to close following the Primark fire to re-open, it also appeared to significantly boost footfall in the area.
McDonald’s, Skechers and Argento were able to open their doors for the first time since August, while Spar is due to re-open tomorrow.
Paul Connan, franchisee of the McDonalds restaurant in Donegall Place, said trade had “started really well” having re-opened today at 11am after a five-day clean-up operation.
When the restaurant close it employed 137 staff and Mr Connan said he was pleased that it has re-opened with 120+ employees still on their books.
Michelle Stirbu, owner of the Phone Boutique, located very close to the cordon on Royal Avenue, said: “We’ve been in Belfast here for five years. These last few months have been the worst. We have struggled to survive.
“We have been waiting for this day. Before there was maybe five or six people coming into the shop.
“Today it is like we have come out from the underground. People are on the street again. I’m so excited. Even more excited than I was when we opened.
“We rely a lot of people walking past and they notice us and they stop, they come in because they have a question about their phone.”
Rajesh Rajesh Rana, President of Belfast Chamber of Trade & Commerce, commented: “We would like to commend the hard work of Belfast City Council, Primark, Belfast One and the many other stakeholders who have been working very hard to get us to this point and we want to remind shoppers that the city is a fantastic place to come in and shop and spend time with friends and family this festive period.
“We look forward to a strong trading period.”