In the minds of many people the capital city of Northern Ireland will always be associated with the murderous sectarian turbulence of the last decades of the 20th century. However, since 1997's Good Friday Agreement, the Belfast of the 21st century has become a very different place indeed. Peace has brought investment on an exceptional scale, turning the city into a thriving centre for business, retail, culture, arts, food and hospitality.
Deloitte's Belfast Crane Survey is an authoritative annual assessment of construction activity across all sectors, including education, retail, hospitality, offices and residential. It acknowledges that the number of major construction schemes has fallen slightly for the past three years, but predicts a reasonably healthy 2022.
Perhaps the survey's most striking revelation is the emerging trend for innovative refurbishment work compared to new builds with refurbishment accounting for 37% of all construction activity in the city centre.
Redevelopment of the Odyssey Pavilion by the private investor Matagorda 2, with £17 million of backing from Deutsche Bank, has been underway since the end of 2019 and is due for completion this year. The new Odyssey will be a highly advanced facility, housing family entertainment units, a health club and climbing wall, a hospitality suite and an expanded bowling alley in addition to a refurbished cinema.
A spokesperson said: "We will reconfigure the site and introduce a new mix of high-quality hospitality, entertainment and leisure offerings which will bring The Odyssey in line with some of the best one site leisure destinations in the world."
A hybrid new-build and refurbishment project in Bedford Street will deliver 210,000 square feet of office space, known as Bedford Square. Formerly a linen warehouse, the four-storey Ewart Building, completed in 1870, will be adopted as its new headquarters by Deloitte which will be the anchor tenant. The Victorian frontage of the sandstone warehouse had been boarded up for many years but is now visible to the public again in all its restored glory by the developers McAleer and Rushe. Deloitte intends to relocate all of its Belfast workforce in the new building, which will become the firm's largest UK office outside London.
In 2018 Primark's Belfast home, Bank Buildings on Castle Street, was undergoing huge refurbishment and extension work at an estimated cost of £30 million when it was almost consumed by fire. After four days the fire was finally extinguished and despite the devastation, firefighters had saved the refurbished rear extension and a number of adjacent properties.
In 2021 work resumed, and an artist's impressions of the finished building were released. At the time a Primark spokesperson said: "Work is well underway on the restoration of Bank Buildings following the tragic fire of 2018. After a short initial delay in 2020 due to Covid-19, the early demolition stage is now complete and teams are working safely on site to restore the historic structure in line with the conservation-led approach we have committed to follow. Primark will continue to work with Belfast City Council and our other city partners so that this great building can be revitalised for the people of Belfast." The project includes the reinstatement of upper floor structures removed from the facades on Bank Street, Castle Street and Royal Avenue, and work is expected to complete during 2022.
It is hoped that the intensive redevelopment work in the city centre will encourage more investment in residential projects. The opportunities and talent are there in abundance: what is needed is the will and the funding. Colin Mounstephen of Deloitte said: "With this fresh investment into city-centre living and more measures such as re-purposing buildings to fill gaps in demand, renewed focus on placemaking will be central to continuing to attract talent to the centre."