Business

New occupiers hint at future face of Belfast

Grant Thornton has moved to the third floor in the newly-rebranded DSW Building on Donegall Square West, the headquarters of Danske Bank

BELFAST has long been the centre of commerce in Northern Ireland, but the make-up of businesses in the city is going through a significant period of change.

Last week, business advisory firm Grant Thornton moved its operations to a more central location in the city, taking up the third floor in the newly-rebranded DSW Building on Donegall Square West, the headquarters of Danske Bank.

Elsewhere, Digital Catapult announced that it is to occupy part of the former Belfast Telegraph building for its Immersive Lab, a digital space that will provide organisations with access to new technologies including augmented and virtual reality.

Each of these represent new occupiers at two of Belfast’s most iconic buildings and, in the case of the latter, hints at a more technological future for the city.

This has already been seen in a number of so called ‘future-fit’ office developments that have been launched recently. Most recently the 150,000 sq ft Nine Lanyon Place, that is undergoing refurbishment and modernisation by Causeway Asset Management, that was officially launched at the start of this week.

The building, when complete, will offer floor plates of 25,000 sq ft of Grade A+ office space designed to appeal to the new breed of technology focused business and foreign direct investors in particular, and will be the second ‘future fit’ office development launched by Causeway in as many months, following Chichester House in early November.

Nine Lanyon Place will also be the second development in Belfast to be WiredScore certified. WiredScore certification is fast-becoming a worldwide digital connectivity benchmark for commercial real estate, and it is already present in several major cities across the globe - including London, Paris and New York - while it has also recently launched in Toronto.

Indeed, the Canadian city could provide a blueprint for future developments in Belfast. Plans by Google parent company Alphabet for the Ontario capital have been likened to an attempt to completely reinvent the “city from the internet up”, with connectivity at the forefront of every aspect of development.

Alphabet’s subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, is developing 12 acres along the Toronto waterfront from the ground up, into which it will embed an array of sensors to gather data on traffic flow, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, travel patterns, and waste output.

With the addition of camera footage, the firm intends to use the data to determine how the space is being used by residents, workers and commuters - and then make improvements accordingly.

Such a concept may, at this point, seem lightyears away in Belfast, but the make-up of the city’s businesses is certainly changing and reflects a shift towards tech that cannot be ignored.

Commercial property agents are increasingly dealing with enquiries from firms in the fintech, cyber security and software development sectors, while Belfast is also becoming known as a centre for emerging technologies like the blockchain.

Just Google ‘Rakuten Belfast’ if you want to see the sort of players who are taking an interest in Belfast. News of the e-commerce behemoth’s opening of their Blockchain Lab here last year on the back of its deal to purchase Bitnet made global tech headlines.

For property developers and landlords in Belfast, opportunities are there to be taken advantage of, but staying one step ahead to keep pace with the changing demands and expectations of new and emerging sectors is the challenge to be tackled.

For the politicians and policy makers, it might be a thought to take a lead from the Ontario policy makers. They identified an area of land and asked for proposals for an “innovation partner” on how to bring forward a development plan.

Importantly, the innovation partner will not be the landlord, ownership would remain with the city who would provide the land and other incentives with no immediate return. Their return would be in the longer term, with the creation of jobs and a new vibrant way for the outside world to look at Belfast. Food for thought.

::Declan Flynn is managing director of Belfast-based commercial property agency Lisney, which works on behalf of many of Northern Ireland's most significant investors and developers as well as major retailers and businesses.

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