After it emerged that the area around the burnt-out shell of Primark could be closed for at least four months, traders and shoppers in Belfast appear to be in favour of knocking the iconic building down in order to save people’s livelihoods.
But an argument was also made about the long-term benefits of preserving the city’s heritage.
Around a dozen businesses neighbouring Primark were informed on Wednesday that their premises would be shut over Christmas while work is carried out to try and save Bank Buildings.
Meanwhile countless more premises that remain open are suffering from a lack of footfall because of the closure of roads and footpaths around the building.
In Castle Street, James Neilly who owns Pizza Boutique said: “We’ve been told four months, but being realistic it could take an awful lot more.
“The extension of Primark had promised a huge boost in footfall – we’re directly opposite the side entrance to the extension – but now we’re completely cut off.
“We rely largely on passing trade. It’s had a huge effect on the business and it’s going to be tight for quite a while.”
He added: “We’ve all got a lot of good memories of the Primark building, but I’d be in favour of knocking it down and rebuilding it exactly the same.
“There’s 1,000, possibly 2,000 families going to be affected – does it make sense to save a building and destroy livelihoods?”
Michael Connor, who runs Conway Opticians with his wife Kathryn, said: “I was expecting two or three weeks – the time it took maybe to build a steel skeleton around it. When I heard four months I couldn’t believe it.
“This business has been open for 25 years and this is the worst thing we’ve seen by a mile.”
He continued: “While we’re a business that sees some customers by appointment, increasingly we’re dependent on walk-ins. The world has changed – people want things on demand.
“The difference in the past week has been stark. This place was extremely busy, now the majority of people are appointments.
“We were taking on maybe 50 or 60 customers a month. We’ll struggle to get new customers now.”
He said: “I think it would make sense to start again and rebuild Primark.
“The alternative will definitely see businesses close and jobs lost.”
In the interim Mr O’Connor suggested better signs informing people that although roads were closed, businesses remain open. He also hopes pedestrian access can be put in place to the closed streets.
Stephanie Watson, manager of restaurant Havana Bank Sq and adjoining bar The Sagart located in Chapel Lane (off Castle Street, close to the side entrance of CastleCourt shopping centre) said: “Businesses within the cordon have already been offered rates relief and will be able to claim for loss of earnings, etc whilst those of us that remain open for trade are dependant on the support of city centre visitors.
“We have already seen a 30 to 40 per cent drop in takings and with the news that the cordon will remain in place for a minimum of four months it’s just beginning to hit home that we are at the start of a very long process leaving us unsure of just how badly we will continue to be affected heading into the most important financial quarter.”
The News Letter also spoke to a number of shoppers in the area around Primark.
Pauline Hutton said: “This is the first time we’ve been into Belfast since it happened. Where’s the noise? Where’s the bustle?
“There’s an eeriness about the place. It’s like a death.
“It was a beautiful building but to get Belfast up and running again it needs to go. The same as with death, you have to move on.”
Charlotte Bingham commented: “I think they should knock it down. People’s livelihoods are more important than a building, as beautiful as it was.
“Perhaps it will make us appreciate the other buildings more.”
Laurence Murphy said: “I think they should knock it down. It served its purpose.
“It’s time to move on. People can be too sentimental when it comes to things like this.”
Alex Gregg said: “I would prefer it that the building could be saved, but we really need to do something to get footfall back otherwise north Belfast will be destroyed. It’s been cut off from the rest of the city.”
He suggested building a steel barricade around the building with a walkway to both protect pedestrians and allow them to access the streets around Primark. He also suggested a temporary roundabout to allow traffic access.
Meanwhile Shane Quinn of Belfast Buildings Trust outlined the importance of saving Bank Buildings.
He said: “The starting point for the Belfast Buildings Trust and those who believe in heritage is that it’s not an ‘either or’ question.
“It’s not a question that the building has to be demolished in order for businesses to survive and thrive.
“There is the counter argument that the city’s built heritage – and heritage in general – is so important to a city centre’s ability to attract people, to attract visitors, to attract investment.”
Mr Quinn added: “The trust recognises and sympathises with the traders.
“We have to consider the short-term pressures for people whose livelihood depends on their businesses being open, or depend on having a job to go to.
“We need to be creative with these short-term solutions to allow a long-term approach to valuing the city’s heritage, to seeing it as part of how we build prosperity and social cohesion.
“The long-term future and economic prosperity of the city depends on our built heritage but there is also that short-term pressure on economic livelihoods which depend on solutions here and now.
“Can vacant units be used by closed businesses? Can the cordon be somehow reduced to all for footfall and a through route around Royal Avenue?
“These are very unusual circumstances. There is no one-fell-swoop solution to all of this.”