I have always been in support of regeneration and development, and I have always maintained that Belfast sorely needs it. At present, Northern Ireland’s economy very much relies on public services, which is by no means sustainable; therefore, investment into the private sector has been a priority for quite some time now by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
Belfast people love to shop, I think it’s one of the few activities that crosses the segregated divide of the city. Belfast’s city centre is actually quite pleasant, it has a good selection of big brand retailers, Victoria Square is a shopaholic’s dream and Castle Court has been holding its own over the past number of years. Our main high street, Royal Avenue and Donegal Place which leads up to the impressive city hall, has experienced a recent facelift, retaining many of the old Victorian splendour and becoming more pedestrian friendly. Let’s not forget to mention Belfast’s food scene has been soaring in recent years with Deane’s EIPIC on Howard Street and OX on Oxford Street being awarded the coveted Michelin Star status. One of the things I miss most about back home is ‘liquid’ lunch dates with the girls. ‘Town’ as the locals call the city centre, is by no means Paris or London, but it has a cozy charm and houses some real architectural gems. You just need to lift your head up and look for them.
However, unknown to many who may not be well-versed locals in the back streets of the city centre, is the area of the Cathedral Quarter. Probably my second favourite place in Belfast (first being my beloved Black Mountain), it oozes of everything that I love in a city district as a young adult in my 20s. Authenticity, creativity, good food, great pubs, talented musicians and most importantly, the ‘craic’. Not to mention the village feel of the quarter with its cobbled streets and narrow alleyways, which all sits nicely beside the lovely St. Anne’s Cathedral. Some of the oldest standing buildings in the city belong to the area, although many of them are run-down due to years of neglect, a good portion of the district has been revamped. One of my favourite transformation stories of the area is that of the ‘Dirty Onion‘ on Waring Street. The timber-framed building itself dates back to 1680 and was first used as a warehouse for a fish merchant and general grocer. In 1921, it was then used as a bonded spirits warehouse and became known as Stack ‘N’ (the ‘N’ referring to the north side of Waring Street), and had stored Jameson whiskey barrels and crates. In the beer garden of the Dirty Onion today, there is a small tribute to this history with the statue of the Jameson Barrelman.
However, the area is more than just traditional pubs and amazing restaurants, it is the literary heart of our city. The old Northern Whig satirical 19th century newspaper which was based on the corner of Waring and Bridge Street (which now also has a gastro-pub called after it), along with Belfast Central Library and the headquarters of the Belfast Telegraph and Irish News are all within the area. The John Hewitt bar is named after one of Belfast’s local poets and Writer’s Square celebrates the city’s literary past with quotations from local writers which are carved on to the stone paving.
It has also become the centre of Belfast’s arts and cultural scene as the MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre), one of Europe’s leading art centres which houses galleries and theatres is in the area. So too is the Black Box which is the home of live music, literature, comedy, film and everything else in between in Belfast. There’s also the Oh Yeah Music Centre which explores the music scene both past and present in Belfast, and you can find Belfast Exposed which houses contemporary photo exhibitions and an archive of images of Belfast throughout the years. Walking through the area of the Cathedral Quarter, in true Belfast fashion, street art is very much alive. Next to the Duke of York down a small alley is the Wall of Famous Faces from Northern Ireland. Further within the alley you can find the hidden Commercial Court with painted murals nodding to the city’s history and local icons. However, there is one mural that shows contemporary life in Belfast and depicts various contrasting social realities of those who reside in the city. For me, it is a true testament of the raw talent in Belfast as to be able to create something that can make you smile, feel rebellious and yet provoke emotions of sadness all at the same time, is incredible.
The Cathedral Quarter stretches all the way down to North Street Arcade and throughout all those small streets, you can find numerous independent small retailers and businesses. From record and music shops, vintage clothing, barber shops, cafés, bookshops, sporting goods, everything that is weird and wonderful, and even useful can be found there. Some of the existing businesses have been there for 40 years or more and most people in Belfast will remember going to this area when out shopping with their Granny back in the day.
So the area of the Cathedral Quarter is up for development and is currently in the pre-planning stages. The development project, ‘Belfast Royal Exchange‘, includes the sites of Rosemary Street, North Street, the old Assembly buildings and all the way through to Writer’s Square. The project comprises a proposed £400m mixed use redevelopment of the north-east side of the quarter and has been purchased by the English firm Castlebrooke Investments.
I was initially very excited when I heard that the area was up for development as seeing those old empty buildings having a second lease of life would bring so much to potential to the area. However, that was until I seen what the plans were and then I became immediately disappointed. The scheme proposed includes generic modern units for retail, leisure, residential and community spaces. There would also be a 26-story block that would overshadow the historic Old Exchange and Assembly Rooms which date from 1769. The mass demolition of the area would also include at least 5 buildings that have protected heritage status – this would provide a precedence to demolish other protected buildings in any other future development projects.
As being a big history buff, everything about this scheme goes against the very essence of what I personally hold to be beautiful and meaningful in a thriving city. I’ve travelled to various cities throughout Europe and what I love most is seeing history having been maintained in the charming cobbled streets, the different cultural districts, and being able to stand in the main town square and take in the beauty of those old magnificent buildings. Let’s face it, Belfast doesn’t rival the likes of Prague, Amsterdam, Krakow or even my own beloved Brussels for its historical beauty, as those cities have it in abundance. Outside of the old city centre of Belfast, there really isn’t much left of it – so the thought that this is even being considered as an option by the city developers is nothing short of appalling.
To go a head with this proposed scheme would not only take away the historical heritage of the Cathedral Quarter but it would also lose a sense of its distinct character, diminishing the cultural heart of Belfast and sinfully displacing independent businesses leaving them with nowhere else to go. Rather than seeing this happen, I believe the Cathedral Quarter should be redeveloped into an area that celebrates our city, provides affordable retail units for quirky boutiques and innovative concept stores whilst maintaining the heritage of the old buildings. I personally would also like to see some green initiatives put into the development by bringing an element of nature to the existing streets. The arts, music and literature scene should continue to flourish against this backdrop and should also be provided with opportunities to enhance its outreach to the local communities.
The picture down below, drawn by a local artist named Ingrid Allen, is a proposed inspiration for the development of North Street Arcade. This very much reflects the hopes I had for the area. When looking at it, it reminds me of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile or Barcelona’s La Rambla, although they are two very distinct cities, what they have in common is that the Royal Mile and La Rambla retain their historical and cultural identity, they are pedestrian friendly, small businesses thrive in the two districts, they attract tourism, and they both centre around historical iconic buildings. Rather than copying these two cities as we want to maintain Belfast’s own unique character, we should draw inspiration from them and from other cities who have been able to maintain their historical and cultural districts whilst turning them into economic hubs at a local level.
I understand that the current proposed scheme might be the cheaper and easier option but at the end of the day, can we really place a value on history and culture? Is is worth sacrificing the wonderful character of the Cathedral Quarter and all those who work in it just to bring in further high-street retailers? There’s a reason why I make a point to visit the Cathedral Quarter every time I come home to visit, it is the epitome of Belfast’s hope. It reflects the positivity and creativity from generations of people who have tried to make the city a better place. It would be a disservice to them and to their hard work to give in to the proposed scheme. Belfast is its people, so listen to them and work with them, and together I believe a bright and prosperous future for the Cathedral Quarter can be had whilst maintaining its true spirit.