As the practical work begins on restoring Bank Buildings there’s an ironic symbolism of the hardship that our city and town centres face as they continue to struggle in the fast changing retail climate.
As consumer habits evolve so too has the increasingly sophisticated offering from the out of town retail/ leisure parks to include free and accessible parking and the ultimate convenience of shopping, dining and entertainment within a single out of town location. Not to mention the rise of online purchases.
Surely Belfast City Centre is due some good news?
We have just exhaled a sign of relief that House of Fraser Belfast is not a casualty of the recent buyout, for now, and we have already watched as “big floor space” retailers have disappeared from Royal Avenue over the years, some of you will remember Top Shop and JJB Sports. Primark, one of the oldest retail brands has now departed from the streetscape leaving a huge void in the heart of our city centre.
Primark in the iconic Bank Buildings has stood squarely in the retail playing field and steadfastly delivered the traditional retail model to its consumers for decades. So many of Primark’s competitors have increased their requirement for remote warehouse space as they diversify their businesses inline with the “Internet of Things” (#IoT). Yet Primark has confidently and comfortably maintained its profile on the high street and very much maintained the integrity of its financial reputation.
Instead of the £30m redevelopment being handed over by the construction team to the developer, it has instead been handed over to our emergency services to extinguish all the efforts that were being made to enhance the property.
Primark is an iconic brand in a strategic location occupying a landmark building. The site was first used in 1785 before WH Lynn designed the current Bank Buildings in 1900, merging Victorian architecture in the upper stories and modernity with a full glass façade on the ground floor.
Now the question is around the impact this incident will have on neighbouring occupiers. How reliant have we been on the presence of Primark in our city centre to drive footfall? The answer will soon make itself known as retailers will be able to compare their shop turnover and footfall rates before and after Primark left our high street, hopefully temporarily. With footfall across Northern Ireland increasing by just under tow per cent earlier in the year the hope is that it will not affect the city centre too much in the run-up to Christmas – and the quick response by Belfast City Council will aid all affected.
As the high rise turntable ladders are used to fight the flames, the lawyers and insurers will be opening their case files in preparation for the investigation which will ensue in search of the cause of the fire and the move towards identifying liability.
Incidents such as these draw swift attention to Health & Safety Policies and Procedures, appropriate levels of insurance cover and, generally, what could have been done to prevent the fire and what now needs written into policy and procedure to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. This falls under the heading of ‘lessons learned’. And, as a member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors know that this is a crucial stage in the aftermath of the blaze.
We hope that from the tragedy an opportunity will emerge. An opportunity to make our city centre better, to improve the offering and enhance this area which marks the halfway point of our city centre.
In the meantime, let’s raise a glass to one of the finest pieces of Northern Ireland Architecture and hope that this site will rise like a phoenix from the ashes and make Belfast proud of the new development that will inevitably take its place.
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