Expert assessment of the stability of the charred remains of Belfast’s historic Bank Buildings is still ongoing, and the city council has said there can be “no quick fix”.
The local authority said engineers are facing considerable difficulties as they work to establish whether the shell of the listed building can be saved, or will have to be demolished.
It was responding to a statement from Ulster Architectural Heritage (UAH) which claims there is “confusion” over the future of the building, with some reports describing the damaged structure as “unstable”, while others make clear that investigations are continuing.
The landmark building at Castle Junction, which was home to the city’s Primark store, was gutted by fire last month.
Since then a safety cordon has been in place around the property amid fears it could collapse, and a number of neighbouring businesses have been unable to reopen – a situation which may not be resolved for several months.
UAH, which wants to see the 119-year-old property saved, claims the strong winds of Storm Ali last week were a stern test of the building’s stability.
“The ‘grand old lady’ is still standing straight and square, having been stress tested in the strongest winds the city has experienced for many years,” a UAH statement said.
“Nature’s way of assessing stability is perhaps as good an indication as any of the quality and strength of the original design.”
However, Belfast City Council said a steel beam inside the burnt-out building was blown down during Storm Ali and loose debris fell within the safety cordon.
Stressing that the building remains “in an extremely dangerous state”, a spokesperson said: “The greatest concerns are around the stability of the chimneys and clock tower, and the upper floor.
“Significant expert assessment of the building is ongoing. Assessment of the building has been further complicated by the fact that there is no access from the ground – engineers are having to carry out assessments by crane and drones, and given the precarious nature and level of instability, this remains an extremely complex and painstaking process.
“Unfortunately given the challenging engineering task involved, there is no quick fix regardless of the outcome whether that be preservation of the facade, or demolition.”
Meanwhile, Primark has said it is still working to identify suitable city centre premises that would allow it to start trading again, with possible options including taking over the New Look outlet at Donegall Place, or trading from the extension the company built at the rear of the Bank Buildings at Castle Street.
“We are currently involved in commercial discussions in relation to Fountain House, Donegall Place,” a Primark spokesperson said.
“We are also still assessing the possibility of trading from Commonwealth House, Castle Street. We will share further details as soon as possible.”
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has confirmed that the cause of last month’s blaze is still under investigation.
With areas of the city centre having witnessed a significant drop in footfall in the aftermath of the fire, Belfast City Council has committed £1.25m to support businesses to attract people into the city.
Primark has pledged £500,000 to the city centre recovery programme.