Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Royal Exchange: What is it?

Royal Exchange is a mixed use redevelopment of the North East Quarter of Belfast City Centre. A proposal to redevelop this area of the city centre dates back to the 1990's. Since this time Ewart Properties have been purchasing land and properties in the area.

Royal Exchange. Credit: Chapman Taylor Architects

During the late 1990's and early 2000's there were four large redevelopment projects attempting to gain the backing of the Department for Social Development. College Gate (the Fountain St, Queen St, Castle St area), an extension to Castle Court into Smithfield, Cathedral Way (now Royal Exchange) and Victoria Square. There was also discussion at the time between Ewart Properties and John Laing/MEPC who considered combining the extension of CastleCourt and Cathedral Way to compete against Victoria Square for government backing. The joint venture referred to as the "Gateway Project" was not progressed and of the competing redevelopment projects Victoria Square was selected for government backing.

The winning Victoria Square proposal with Churchill House
retained as a hotel tower. The proposal was subsequently altered.

As Victoria Square passed through an almost six year planning process the Royal Exchange proposal was awaiting the potential backing of the government as the next area for retail-led regeneration. By the early 2000's it was reported that Ewart Properties had acquired nearly 80% of the properties and land required for their development. In March 2006 the Social Development Minister, as expected, announced the selection of the North East Quarter as the next area for major retail-led regeneration in the city centre after Victoria Square.

Following discussions between Ewart Properties and the Department for Social Development "Heads of Terms" were agreed and signed on February 6th 2008. This led to the signing in December 2009 of a Development Agreement between the developer consortium and DSD to outline legal and contractual matters and stipulate that a planning application must be approved by DSD and submitted to the Planning Service by 31 October 2010. Commenting on the signing of the development agreement Nick Reid, chief executive of Ewart Properties, commented that “the company has been acquiring properties in the area for almost 20 years and to date has invested £40m to get to this stage".

Royal Exchange. Credit: Chapman Taylor Architects.

On 29th October 2010 the developer, Leaside Investments (a consortium consisting of Ewart Properties and Snoddens Construction) submitted the planning applications for the Royal Exchange development. However, DSD has stated that the project will only commence construction when the retail market and general economy recovers to enable a viable development to proceed.

The proposal submitted to DoE Planning in 2010 sought to provide up to 250,000 sq ft of retail space complemented by restaurants, bars, caf├ęs, art and leisure uses, apartments, offices and car parking.

The project team consists of Chapman Taylor Architects, Consarc Conservation, Hughes McMichael, Bruce Shaw, RPS, Delap & Waller and DPP.

The application was approved following consultation with various agencies and stakeholders by DoE Minister Attwood in September 2012.

Environment Minister Alex Attwood pictured with
Nick Reid, Chief Executive, William Ewart Properties.
Image from:

The approved £360m, 11 acre redevelopment over 11 blocks aims to provide one main anchor department store (8,300m2), over 25,000m2 of class A1 retail, over 4,000m2 of commercial space for catering and leisure, 200 residential units (40 allocated for affordable housing), a cultural arts centre, 25 bedroom boutique hotel and a 1,000 space two-storey basement car park.

Rosemary Street area. Credit: Chapman Taylor Architects.

Whilst the future economic investment and job creation and the potential for new retailers and leisure providers to the Northern Ireland market place is welcomed by some, there are others with concerns for the viability, design and impact of the project. 

The project was conceived before the University of Ulster began to plan for an expansion at York Street. Currently Royal Exchange is designed to cater for a greater footfall from Royal Avenue. There is concern that the historic Donegall Street will become a dead service street as the service yard and service doors for the anchor tenant dominate one side. Concerns have also been raised that the basement car park entrance in Writers Square opposite the front of St Anne's Cathedral would be disastrous for the areas amenity and could cause trouble for any future plans to soften the impact of York Street outside the University's entrance.

Writer's Square. Credit: Chapman Taylor Architects.

Obviously the arguments for job creation and economic investment and for preserving the heritage of the area and carefully considering transport and parking are all significant and require careful consideration. It is likely this will not be the last planning application for Royal Exchange to pass through DoE Planning....

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