RSUA statement on the proposed development formerly known as Royal Exchange in Belfast city centre

16 March 2018

Further to our statement of 5th April 2017, ‘RSUA Calls on Cathedral Quarter Developers (Royal Exchange) to Improve and Enrich Plans’, RSUA met with the developers in May and November 2017 to discuss the design of the project.

Today we are publishing our comments on the project based on the presentations and discussions from the meeting in November 2017.

RSUA

The Royal Ulster Society of Architects (RSUA) is the professional body for architects in Northern Ireland. It has a membership of approximately 800 chartered architects. The organisation aims to deliver public benefit through the promotion of architecture and welcomes the opportunity to provide comment on this project.

Overview

RSUA acknowledges the significant changes to the scheme over the last year which we believe have resulted in a more appropriate and contextual project. In our comments below we have proposed a range of steps which we believe will further enhance the scheme and we have identified a number of areas which we believe should be reviewed by the statutory authorities.

In summary, RSUA’s views are:

  • The relevant statutory authorities should ensure that this project can be progressed in such a way that it does not encourage more cars into the city centre.
  •  A co-ordinated approach between this development and the many other sizeable developments (started and proposed) that it interfaces with is needed. RSUA offers to facilitate engagement between all the relevant developers, land owners and statutory authorities.
  •  The underground car park access arrangements are not ideal and a better resolution is possible.
  •  The square in front of the cathedral will not work properly if buses and taxis are granted permission to drive through it. RSUA calls on the relevant authorities to allow this square to be completely vehicle free.
  •  There is a need for clarity on the ownership of the proposed new public spaces and any potential restrictions on public use.
  •  To assist Belfast in its drive to be an attractive, fun and healthy city this development should incorporate more elements to help ‘green’ the city and make provision for children.
  •  Water tight assurances over design quality and specification of the new buildings will be key to this project gaining widespread support.
  •  Early commitments to the provision of social/affordable housing would align the project with Belfast City Council’s vision for the city centre.
  •  Local government and central government departments should provide leadership on the planned provision of appropriate facilities and services for families in the city centre to give developers a clear steer on the potential for family accommodation.
  •  A quality benchmark for residential buildings in the city core should be established.
  •  Early confirmation of the use of the proposed tall building would be beneficial as it will have a significant impact on design decisions. Safety must be a primary consideration.

 1.     Cars

Parking – Discouraging cars from the city centre

A key part of our city’s drive toward increased levels of active travel and use of public transport must be to make travel by car less attractive.

RSUA believes that this project should be taken forward in a way which minimises the volume of traffic being encouraged into the city centre core and therefore we believe that car parking provision should be kept to a minimum.

We acknowledge the developer’s aspiration to reduce the volume of car parking associated with the project and we encourage the relevant statutory authorities to consider best practice from vibrant cities across Europe in this regard.

Underground car park

As it stands we still have reservations about the underground car park access arrangements which impact on the junction at Cathedral Gardens/Ulster University and Belfast Telegraph.

It would be preferable to see an alternative access point, perhaps via Exchange Street or North Street adjacent to the egress point. This would be more discreet and have less impact on ‘severing’Cathedral Gardens from the new proposed streetscape and public realm.

It is important that these car parking issues are sorted out during the planning process.

2.     Interface – Joined up approach

This project interfaces with theUlsterUniversityand the area covered by the Inner North West Masterplan. The Masterplan is currently out for consultation.  It is an interface at which significant development is planned over the next number of years. RSUA believes it is essential that the masterplanning at this interface is very well co-ordinated. RSUA calls for and offers to facilitate engagement between all the relevant developers, land owners and statutory authorities.

Joined up thinking may provide solutions that all parties could find beneficial and most importantly would enhance the city.

3.     Transportation/roads

Writers Square

RSUA supports the removal of buses/taxis altogether from the public space in front of St Anne’s Cathedral. We have concerns that without this removal, the public square will not function as intended and would result in a significant loss of public amenity space.

Four Corners

In addition, it would be a real shame and a lost opportunity to break the continuity of surfacing at the four corners junction for traffic purposes and we would propose that this is re-addressed.

4.     Public realm

Clarity on ownership and any restrictions to public use

The introduction of new lanes, squares and open focal spaces is welcome however the devil will be in the detail. There is also a need for clarity on the ownership of these public spaces and any potential restrictions on public use.

New lane connecting North Street and Donegall Street

The central courtyard in the new lane connecting North Street and Donegall Street appears to have mostly blank service areas at ground floor level. This raises the concern that there will be little street level activity and therefore contribution to public realm will be minimal.

Greening and provision for children

RSUA believes that Belfast’s centre is very much underprovided for in terms of ‘greening’ and provision for children. We would encourage further consideration of ways to incorporate such features into the project. Both are important ingredients in creating an attractive, fun and healthy city.

5.     Heritage

Assurances that new buildings must enhance the existing character

RSUA welcomes the increased retention of heritage in the updated plans for the project. The treatment of listed properties and other retained buildings will be important and assist in ‘grounding’ the development in this part ofBelfast, adding vibrancy to the project.  It is of course equally essential that the new buildings enhance the existing character.  RSUA believes that water tight assurances over design quality and specification of the new buildings will be key to this project gaining widespread support.

Area to rear of First Presbyterian

RSUA would like to draw particular attention to the new area to be created at the rear of the First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary St/Central Catholic Club which we believe will require further detailed development in order to provide a satisfactory solution.

6.     Uses

Small units

We welcome the introduction of ‘small’ communal units to encourage existing and proposed small businesses to locate within the project.

Residential

The dispersal of varying types of residential accommodation across the development phases is also welcomed. We appreciate there will be market considerations as regards to tenure and mix in due course however early commitments to the provision of social/affordable housing would align the project with Belfast City Council’s vision for the city centre.

Provision of family accommodation is a difficult proposition as consideration must then be given to the proximity of appropriate facilities and services. Whilst this is difficult, it is a topic that all significant developers in the city centre are likely to have to grapple with in conjunction with the public bodies in the coming years.

Call for local government and central government to provide the leadership on this.

Quality benchmark to be established for residential in the core

Whilst there may be a focus on the volume of housing being provided RSUA believes equal attention should be given to the quality of that housing and that a quality benchmark for residential accommodation should be established as part of the plans for the regeneration and repopulation of the city’s core.

Office space

We would note the quantum of office space provision which is now extensive and by far the largest component. The concern would be to ensure that Ground Floor space is well considered to add vibrancy to the streets surrounding. Clearly the content will again be demand driven in terms of office occupiers and other market opportunities.

We believe it is important to retain an element of flexibility as regards the mix of uses which should not be overly defined to ensure that change can be effected and that the whole scheme is deliverable.

As mentioned above, RSUA believes that water tight assurances over design quality and specification of the new buildings will be key.

Uses/tenants that retain distinctive character

RSUA has previously stated that although the project is in the Cathedral Quarter, that quarter could have been called the old town, the historic quarter, the cultural quarter or even the Independent Quarter due to the many local independent enterprises and the sparseness of global/national chain stores and outlets. RSUA believes that the area can prosper by retaining this distinctive character.

7.     Tall building

Significant amendments to the initial design proposal have been addressed including the introduction of a ‘podium’ block and a re-orientation of stepping and primary orientation.

This has certainly assisted the visual impact on some of the key components.

Belfast currently lacks a Tall Building Policy which we understand is now under consideration – we cannot therefore pre-empt this, however the principle of an elegant, well considered structure with quality of materials and appropriate uses is not something that we would object to.

Early confirmation of the use of the tall building would be beneficial as it will have a significant impact on design decisions. Safety must be a primary consideration.

It is important that sufficient assurances are put in place to give people confidence that design quality and specification will not be watered down after planning is granted.

We would caution against arbitrary height reduction which can have adverse impact on the elegance of such a building type.

RSUA suggests that evidence should be provided through the planning process of how the street level accommodation will not be adversely impacted by the tower’s exits, bins, service ducts, parking access etc. as this has been a common problem with tall buildings.

8.     Sustainability

The Combined Heat and Power proposal would be a pro-active statement for the city however we assume that a number of temporary solutions will be required prior to the construction of sufficient critical mass to support such an investment.

Presumably the buildings themselves will be developed utilising the appropriate sustainable design codes eg. BREEAM/LEED/Passivhaus.