Athletic Stores Demise 20 April 2012
Attwood exhausts all options to save Athletic Stores site
After an exhaustive assessment of all issues from every angle, DOE Planning has given planning permission for retail and residential development on the Athletic Stores site.
The Environment Minister Alex Attwood has concluded this is, with regret, the better way to proceed.
The existing building on the site is vacant apart from the Athletic Stores. The new development will replace it. The Minister has exhaustively considered options to save the existing building which is not listed but is in a Conservation Area.
The building has serious structural flaws and is leaning into the street. It has been concluded that foundations and structure could not be refurbished to provide units for modern living and working. Many heritage campaigners accept that the entire building cannot be saved and converted to give it a useful life.
The option to retain the facades fronting the streets with a new building behind have been considered. The necessary works would affect character and would not be financially viable. This option has been assessed at length but this is the conclusion unfortunately that has been drawn.
Alex Attwood said: “I said that I would ‘call in’ the papers on the Athletic Stores application. I did. I interrogated the Belfast Planning Team on the application. I asked for facts and figures to be produced and tested. I visited the location twice and on the second occasion I invited representatives from the Ulster Architectural Historical Society to join me. I wanted to demonstrate that any decision – whatever its nature – was made, having looked at the issue from every side.
In the final analysis, I conclude that the planning decision for a retail and residential development is the better one unfortunate though that is. I have worked to see if the building, even the façade, could be saved. It has been a hard decision but I believe the better one. In coming to this view, I have been mindful of the risky state of the building, the unhealthy state of the property market and the disproportionate and uneconomic costs to even save the facade.”
Alex Attwood added: “This decision has preoccupied me, given the commitment to preserving our built heritage, trebling the threshold for listed buildings grants, investing in Carlisle Memorial Church and the Dry Dock in Titanic Quarter, spotlisting and serving Urgent Works Notices. I don’t come to this decision lightly but I consider it the better way to proceed.
“Decorative features of the existing building will be salvaged; the new project will be a boost to this central Belfast location, which has been in an increasing state of decline.”
In further highlighting why the reasons for the decision the Minister continued: “Let me outline further what would have happened had this planning application been turned down. Normally, we expect owners to place empty buildings on the open market in conservation areas. But existing buildings have lay empty in this area for years and no developer, especially in the present economic climate, will likely invest in a building where it is more expensive to refurbish than to knock down and rebuild. This is the hard reality of the market at present. I had to be decisive, reduce further decline and try to move the area forward.
“This is the context for a difficult decision, one reached with regret, after looking at the application from every side. “