Shipping containers to protect Belfast shoppers on newly-reopened Royal Avenue `in case the Primark building falls'

Work gets underway to have the main Belfast city centre shopping thoroughfare opened in time for Christmas. Picture by Hugh Russell.

A SPECIALLY constructed `tunnel' will allow shoppers back on Belfast city centre's main thoroughfare next week.

The bespoke enclosed walkway will be protected by shipping containers as "ballast in case the Primark building falls".

Joe O'Connor, who is overseeing the restoration effort of the iconic Bank Buildings after it was destroyed by fire, admitted yesterday "basically the building is hanging in the breeze".

However, both Primark and Belfast City Council say when the walkway - 3m wide and 2.5m high - opens its design will offer shoppers full protection.

As well as giving shoppers free movement along the shopping thoroughfare it will also allow eight shops on the opposite side of Royal Avenue and Donegall Place to reopen on Monday.

The store confirmed that it will reopen in the structurally-sound Commonwealth House building - which was to have served as a massive extension to the affordable fashion favourite - on Saturday December 8.

It has planned `crowd control' measures for the expected stampede of shoppers when doors open at 9am.

Work taking place to let people pass safely by the Primark building. Picture by Matt Bohill

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Read more: Aerial photographs capture the devastation of Primark fire

Neale Kirk, Primark area manager, said four floors will open and all departments will be represented over 26,700 square feet, with access via Castle Street, from the west side of the city centre.

Painstaking work is continuing to dismantle the fragile top two floors of listed building, with two specialist ramps shipped in.

Mr O'Connor said securing the existing structure has been made more difficult by the fact they are "pretty much building on a swamp", with the River Farset running below the ground.

He revealed that the building remains so unstable, they have still not been able to carry out a full assessment of the damage to the lower floors.

Retailers of the eight stores behind the cordon, forced in the aftermath of the fire to close due to the risk of imminent collapse of the five-storey building, have been allowed back into their premises and are assessing the work needed to re-open on Monday.

Stores along Castle Street, including Spanish retailer Zara, will not be able to reopen until the building is properly braced.

All businesses unable to trade were eligible for £19,000 from the city council administered Fund for Businesses, with other businesses affected by falling footfall allocated £5,000.

Suzanne Wylie, Belfast City Council chief executive, said more than 95 businesses have benefited from the cash and relocated traders, including City Picnic have "settled in well" to their temporary premises.

Coming weeks will see a range of `animation' installed in areas currently experiencing lower footfall, including `Cinema in the Square' at Castle Street and a `Big Christmas Busk-off'.

Read more: 

Primark store in Bank Buildings in Belfast city centre was gutted in a blaze in August

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