Business

Paul McErlean: Sense of renewal and excitement created by new Belfast buildings is giving a real buzz

City Quays 3 in Belfast Harbour
City Quays 3 in Belfast Harbour

MY son and I were heading across the Westlink towards the M2 last week when he asked me about a very impressive building that looms large as you come over the brow of the hill at Carlisle Circus. I told him it is a new office building called City Quays 3.

Totally unprompted (though I’m always boring him talking about new buildings), he said it was nicer than the Obel building which previously dominated the skyline from the northern side of Belfast lough. I explained that the two buildings are different: Obel is a residential building; City Quays 3 is for offices. That didn’t really wash with him, he just prefers City Quays 3, which is a striking blend of glass, steel and stone.

City Quays was a £40 million construction project completed by local building firm Farrans, creating 250,000 square feet of grade A office space for Belfast. As the name suggests, it’s the third office building developed by Belfast Harbour in the transformation of the area around the beautiful Victorian-era Harbour Office. The £250m regeneration project also includes the opening of the AC Hotel by Marriott, a new multi-storey car park and much more to come.

Though my favourite bit is the new walkway from Belfast’s ‘Big Fish’ at the Lagan Weir, underneath the road bridge down to the new hotel and beyond. It’s high quality, safe and clean and it opens a whole, extended part of Belfast city centre that wasn’t very accessible before. If you haven’t been, please go. To walk down there and see the office workers and tourists with their coffees and their camera phones in hand does this Belfast boy’s heart good.

That might sound a bit sentimental, but I feel great pride in what’s been achieved down there and particularly directly across the river in Titanic Quarter, especially since it’s all happened in my professional lifetime, and we’ve been lucky to be involved in it in small ways down the years.

We still are, and I was in the Barnett Room of the Harbour Office this week to hear Nusrat Ghani MP, the Minister of State in the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, talk about a sustainable maritime and innovation strategy and how Belfast Harbour is helping to lead the way in that regard. It was a stakeholder event to update port users and others in Belfast about the Harbour Commissioners’ management of the estate. The numbers reported by Harbour chair Dr Theresa Donaldson and chief executive Joe O’Neill are impressive.

Nusrat Ghani, UK Minister of State in the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, pictured in Belfast last week with Belfast Harbour chief executive Joe O’Neill and chair Dr Theresa Donaldson
Nusrat Ghani, UK Minister of State in the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, pictured in Belfast last week with Belfast Harbour chief executive Joe O’Neill and chair Dr Theresa Donaldson

In 2021, trade through the Port reached a record 25.6 million tonnes of cargo, with 1.5 million passengers passing through the ferry terminals, and a very welcome return of large numbers of cruise ship visitors.

Joe O’Neill also reported that operating profits for 2021 rose by 14 per cent to £33.9m, and £36.4m was re-invested back into Port and Estate development projects. With a few notable exceptions like the equally impressive Olympic House development in Titanic Quarter and Gareth Graham’s Merchant Square for PwC, not many organisations had the ability or the guts to continue to invest through the Covid period. But the Harbour Commissioners stuck to their task. The results are changing the skyline and the accessibility of the city, and it’s great to see.

While I’m on the theme, and sure if you are down that direction, please include the new Ulster University campus on your walking tour. What a totally brilliant new bit of the city centre it is. And it opens new accesses as well. My first walk through the campus was with one of the very fine Irish News business journalists, who showed me a new street running parallel to Donegall Street which opens into the plaza at the front of the new campus and provides, handily for him, rear access to the Irish News building.

The place was buzzing with students - just hanging out, sitting on the steps and on lovely benches. The quintuple height interiors and stone and steel finishes are a thing to behold. And in a nod to the building’s Belfast School of Art heritage, some of our finest painters’ works are on the walls, including a huge Basil Blackshaw that I stood and marvelled at for a few minutes.

I might be a bit obsessed, but the sense of renewal and excitement created by major new buildings is one of the things that gives me a real buzz in life and thankfully, with all its faults and challenges and at times what seems like a glacial pace, Belfast keeps adding to itself, thanks to a small group of risk-taking people in the public and private sectors. Long may that continue.

Paul McErlean (paul@mcecomms.com) is managing director and founder of MCE (www.mcecomms.com)