Reflecting on the change face of Belfast and its buildings
WHEN I was a kid the main feature of a Christmas or birthday trip to the city centre was a visit to Leisure World on Queen Street, Gardeners Bookshop and Robinson and Cleaver department store. In later years as a teenager those haunts were replaced with Caroline Music,The Gramaphone Shop, Golden Discs (I bought a lot of records in those days, when records where vinyl and cost about £6 for a new release), The University Bookshop. If there was any money left a visit to Wimpeys was sometimes on the agenda.
Tickets for the big concerts which returned to the city in the 1980s were bought in Harrison's on Castle Street. So too were the bus tickets for the gigs which brought us to Dublin and beyond - it may seem fanciful to teenagers of today but we were able to get buses there and back without the aid of social media or even mobile phones. Even when Harrison's closed and before Ticketmaster sales took over, we got our concert tickets in Makin' Tracks where U2 famously put in a surprise midnight appearance in 1987 to mark the release of The Joshua Tree album. Oh yes, those really were the days.
So what has brought on this bout of old Belfast nostalgia? Well, there has been a lot of talk in the past week about Belfast buildings, and most of that chat has been cast in a negative context.
Last Friday, International News & Media, the owners of the Belfast Telegraph, announced plans to close the printing press with the loss of 90 jobs, and while that is the major concern for those affected, INM also announced that the iconic Belfast Telegraph building on Royal Avenue will close. That's another piece of old Belfast which will disappear.
The newspaper, which at its height produced six editions per day and sold 172,000 copies, has fallen on hard times, in keeping with the troubles facing the print media industry. The four-storey building has housed the Belfast Telegraph for more than a century and with its famous '1870' clock has been a Belfast landmark - now the building, like the business, faces an uncertain future. The last thing that part of Royal Avenue needs is yet another outsized coffee shop. At the very least let's hope that any redevelopment pays heed to the history of the building and retains the inherent character.
One of the redeeming features of our city is the volume of buildings, venues, attractions which are unique; the last thing we want is to drift into the mediocrity of being just another 'Anytown, Anywhere'. Too many of our old independent shops have morphed into generic coffee houses and mobile phone outlets. Thankfully we still have some independent shops in the city and indeed dotted throughout our regional towns and today, with teenage years behind me, a half hour browsing in the wonderful No Alibis bookshop on Botanic Avenue is time, and money, well spent.
Another building which attracted unwanted attention last week is the Waterfront Hall and specifically the new extension which will deliver a dedicated 4,000 sq metre conference and exhibition centre, at a cost of £30 million. Belfast will then be in a position to host major conferences and events which we have not been in the market for up to this point. The spend represents a major investment of local and European funds and it is to be welcomed. Anyone who takes a couple of minutes to look at the 'fly through' video on the Waterfront website cannot fail to be impressed at the new facility and according to the Council, bookings and queries for the new facility are already coming in.
The fuss last week was around the loss of the iconic image of the dome shaped waterfront building being obscured by an as yet incomplete extension. We can't have everything and in years to come I imagine the conference centre will be playing a role in the long term development and promotion of Belfast. The original view of the Waterfront building from the city centre has already been downgraded by the erection of new office blocks, but can anyone say that the Soloist Building, now the centrepiece of a burgeoning legal district and home to Pinsent Masons, isn't a welcome addition to the Belfast landscape?
On a practical level we do need to overhaul and increase our supply of grade A office space in Belfast and as Mark Twain noted, "they don't make land anymore", we have to work with what we have, and make it work as best as we can.
So at the very least judgment on the new extended Waterfront Hall should wait until the project is complete.
I guess in a few years from now some of today's teenagers may lament the passing of their own favourite city centre store, as our city evolves and changes; that's progress for you and thankfully the Belfast they are growing up in is a brighter and better place than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. But they never had Leisure World.
:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner of MW Advocate. Twitter: @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: Paul McErlean.